Is HBO’s Emmy Strategy for ‘True Detective’ a True Risk?

HBO has announced it is submitting 'True Detective' as a mini-series instead of as a drama, but will that Emmy strategy pay off or backfire?

Mar 28, 2014 at 6:40AM

This month, a number of networks had to make tough judgment calls relating to this year's Emmy race, but for HBO (a subsidiary of Time Warner (NYSE:TWX)) and its breakout hit True Detective, the wrong decision could cost its network financially.


(Credit: HBO)

American Emmy Story

While many see winning an Oscar as the most prestigious of Hollywood awards, winning an Emmy is among the most profitable. Unlike a movie, a successful TV show maintains a front-of-mind presence for years after its debut and continues to make money in perpetuity through weekly airings every season. It can also help launch new shows and draw additional ad revenue and new subscribers in subsequent years for its network. Yet the race to win a Emmy is not as clear cut as other awards and networks use loopholes to get the system to work in their favor.

Take for example FX, which a few years ago submitted its hit anthology thriller American Horror Story as a mini-series instead of as a drama. Technically the network was well within in its rights -- the rules state a mini-series is a program that has a self-contained storyline over its run. Given that Horror changes it theme and plot every year it qualifies, and as a result saw a large number of nominations bestowed on it over its first two years. Rival networks complained but Emmy organizers stood by their decision and rightfully so.

A 'True' Mystery

You have to give FX credit for that strategy -- it was a smart (and perfectly legal) move. Executives knew taking their chances in the ultra-crowded drama categories would be tricky and the series likely would not have netted as many nominations against that stiffer competition; it could have been snubbed.

That same dilemma is facing fellow anthology series True Detective this year, but HBO's going a different route -- instead of taking the safer road, executives are taking a rockier one. The network was expected to submit the program as a mini-series to give it a better chance of winning and to avoid competing with fellow flagship series Boardwalk EmpireGame of Thrones, and The Newsroom. However the network feels so confident in Detective, it's going to submit it as a drama. And that decision is maddening to fans, analysts, and rival networks.

Not only will Detective have to compete with its own dramatic siblings (two of which are entering their final seasons), but it will do battle against (and take away votes from) presumed repeat nominees like Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Homeland, and a resurgent The Good Wife. That's not even mentioning the 800-pound, meth-driven elephant in the room that is the reigning champ and expected winner Breaking Bad. So in addition to HBO cannibalizing itself, the move will have a domino effect on the industry as it could lead to another show getting pushed out of the mix (maybe even one of HBO's own).

Furthermore, individual acting categories will see a change as now all of a sudden Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle is taking on Walter White during his goodbye tour ... and remember White's portrayer Bryan Cranston is a multi-time winner in a game where voters love to play favorites. This will also have bearing on McConaughey's co-stars Woody Harrelson and Michelle Monaghan, who like the newly minted Oscar winner would have had much better chances of nominations and possibly wins in the mini-series field.

Embarrassment of riches


(Credit: HBO)

Despite what some think, an Emmy win is an Emmy win and the network is making a risky choice that will impact its ability to both market and promote its shows. HBO uses a subscriber-based business model, so ad revenue doesn't impact it. But the ability to lure big stars for new top-tier award-caliber projects directly correlates to them signing up new subscribers. If the network's decision costs an actor or series a nomination (across any of HBO's contenders), that could play a role in attracting future talent and showrunners who may be turned off by its strategy.

HBO didn't need to do this to ensure Detective would get a nomination (of some sort). It did this because it wants to make a point that it's second to none in its field and its programs can compete with anything. I understand the reasoning -- you want to go into a fight with your best weapon, but you also don't pick a fight when you don't need to. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences just finalized a plan to reseparate the made-for-TV movie and mini-series categories for the specific reason of increased contenders, Detective initially being seen as one. The win was there for the taking, but HBO decided to make it more complicated for itself. 

It's a gamble, albeit a calculated one. If it wins, HBO looks like a genius for going after what is seen as a bigger prize. Yet if it loses the network is still the leader of premium cable and this is not going to change that in the short run. No matter what, HBO can still tell good stories, attract top-tier talent, and keep its viewer base engaged, so executives know they'll be in this position once again down the line and are comfortable taking this shot because of that knowledge. It just seems like a unnecessary risk and one that will be (and should be) watched very carefully.

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