The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Can you win an Emmy by advertising on the side of a bus?

June 23, 2011 |  1:30 pm

David_duchovny You know you live in a company town when you're stuck in traffic on Wilshire Boulevard, minding your own business, daydreaming about making money on the side by promoting a celebrity wrestling match between Michael Bay and Megan Fox, when you look over at the bus idling beside you and see (gasp!) an Emmy for-your-consideration ad!

Judging from all the fat Emmy-oriented issues of The Envelope, my paper's awards-season supplement, I knew that the Emmy Awards race had been in high gear, with nominations due to be announced July 14. And with so many cable networks churning out quality TV shows, it's understandable that there would be heightened competition for the awards. So I get why there would be an advertising blitz in the trades and my paper. I get why TV academy members are being deluged with lavish DVD box sets and gimmicky promotional material things, which, by the way, the Motion Picture Academy doesn't allow studios to send to its members.

But bus ads?

The ads I saw were bankrolled by Showtime, and they offered a photos from shows like "Californication," — but not the show's actual title. The brands they were selling were "Emmys" and "Showtime." There are a lot more Emmys voters than Oscars voters — about 15,000 versus 6,000 — but still, what are the odds of actually hitting that target audience with something as mass appeal as a bus ad? And why bother, when you could spend your bucks on a far more targeted ad buy? And by the way, why spend any money on a mass-appeal Emmy campaign when there is hardly any evidence that winning an Emmy offers any kind of significant ratings boost for a TV show or salary bump for an actor's career, as Oscars do?

I spoke to several showbiz awards season experts, none of whom could remember seeing an Oscar ad on the side of a bus before. They said the answer to all of the above questions was simple enough: ego, branding and bragging rights. Running a lavish Emmys campaign is a way to win favor with top showrunners and acting talent. Network execs have an extra bounce in their step after their shows come home with a few statuettes. It's also a vehicle to raise the awareness for a small AMC-type network, whose awards success with "Mad Men" hasn't translated into any big ratings boost but it certainly has helped give the cable network some cache.

But does a bus ad really translate into anything resembling awards-season prestige? As one awards consultant quipped: "I'm guessing Showtime's operating theory is that if an Emmy voter notices the ad, it will be completely subliminal, so they might remember the ad but forget that they saw it on a side of a bus. In fact, there are so many out-of-work TV actors these days, you might find a lot of Emmy voters actually riding the bus." However you look at it, when you add the Emmys to the Oscars, awards season is now a 365-day-a-year phenonema.

— Patrick Goldstein

Photo: David Duchovny, left, with Natascha McElhone in a scene from Showtime's hit show, "Californication."

Credit: Jordin Althaus / Showtime