Mike Hess has been a fan of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” since the critically acclaimed show’s first season. Despite the fact that it rarely cracked the top 50 in the Nielsen rankings, he stayed loyal.
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But after seeing the June 4 episode “The Son,” he knew it was time for action. Zach Gilford’s character, Matt Saracen, loses his father to the Iraq War on the episode, and Hess was so moved by Gilford’s performance that he felt the actor deserved an Emmy nomination.
“It was so just jarring or moving,” Hess said. “It bounced around my mind for a day or two afterwards. … To be honest it was one of the best hours of television I remember seeing.”
Hess, who was the managing editor of AOL’s celebrity website PopEater at the time, remembered the success of the fan campaign to get Betty White on “Saturday Night Live” and started a Facebook group to get Gilford an Emmy nomination on July 8. He tweeted the information and splashed the campaign across PopEater.
Though his “Nominate ‘Friday Night Lights’ Star Zach Gilford for an Emmy!” page has fewer than 9,000 fans, it has received attention from media outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post and the Hollywood Reporter. What otherwise could have been a futile attempt involving writing letters to Emmy voters has become a worldwide social media campaign that is reaching far more people than ever before, thanks to the Internet.
“It’s really just about spreading the word,” Hess explained.
Changing the landscape
More than ever, fans are able to voice their concerns and feelings about actors and shows — and actually be heard. With the use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools, people are able to connect and promote a cause from their own homes and without spending a lot of money.
“It’s the combination of a Facebook page and an idea that people can latch onto,” said David Mathews, creator of the Facebook page “Betty White to Host ‘SNL’ (please?)!” “It was something that had never been done before. It’s a big part of what had drove the story.”
Mathews started the Facebook group after his friend bet him he couldn’t get at least 2,000 people to support his idea. By the time White was hosting “SNL,” the page was half a million strong.
“SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels admitted that the outpouring of fan support is what tipped the show toward asking the “Golden Girls” actress to host. He told USA Today, “It was the outpouring of affection from fans, and we feel the same way."
John Leverence, the senior vice president of awards for the Television Academy (the governing body that oversees Emmys), said he was not aware of the Gilford Emmy nomination campaign. Still, he didn’t discount the effect that social media campaigns could have on the upcoming nominations. Leverence said Facebook fan campaigns help democratize the process, an idea that the academy can get behind.
“It’s about the opportunity to see a performance whether or not it appears on a social networking page,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s an opportunity to become a more informed voter, and I laud it.”
How voting works
Traditionally, members of the Television Academy receive a ballot with a roster of potential nominees. That list includes shows that have made deliberate attempts to get the academy to notice their product, otherwise known as For Your Consideration campaigns.
Leverence said these techniques include taking out advertisements on billboards and in trade newspapers such as Variety, Hollywood Reporter and Emmy Magazine, as well as sending out DVD screeners. This is usually a highly expensive process, and smaller shows that don’t receive much funding can often find themselves out of the loop.
“There’s always been a have and have-nots in terms of these campaigns,” Leverence said. “(Social media) is definitely an opportunity for the little guy — without the financial resources — to enter in.”
There’s never been a show or actor that has successfully campaigned for a nomination through social media, but since the idea is relatively new, it’s something that the academy has its eye on yet. Other groups like “The Campaign for a 2010 Emmy Nomination (and Win) for Cat Deeley” and “Help us nominate Mike O'Malley Burt on Glee for a Primetime Emmy” have sprung up this season. So far, they have not become as successful as Gilford’s fans’ efforts.
“Social networking will become ever more a player and a tool in these campaigns,” Leverence said.
Leverence noted the category in which Gilford could be nominated — supporting actor in a drama series — has about 1,500 voters. Once they receive the ballot, the voters are asked to mark up to 10 people they have seen performances from this season that they believe deserve a nomination. From that, the top six vote-getters are announced as nominees.
While Leverence is skeptical that social media fan campaigns can get a show on the ballot, he thinks that Facebook fan pages can influence a voter to check to check out a particular show, which could lead to a vote and an actor’s eventual nomination.
He added that “FNL” had sent out a three-DVD package with the entire season to the Television Academy membership, proving that the show made an extra effort beyond the original airing of the season. Whether or not the Facebook page has convinced any of the voters to put the DVDs in their players is another question all together.
“It is kind of niche marketing skill that now is opening up,” he said. “Social networking is creating a new way of advertising that would never would have been possible before.”
Not what it seems
With online fan campaigns being a relatively new idea, there are a couple of predecessors that show the Gilford campaign can potentially have an impact.
Others have used Facebook and Twitter fan campaigns to gain popularity for their causes outside of awards. The creators of these groups say it doesn’t necessarily translate into the results they thought it would.
Erin Moore, who started “UCLA Students Against James Franco as Commencement Speaker,” was surprised and a little disappointed when the actor canceled his gig as the UCLA Class of 2009’s graduation speaker less than a week before the date. Though his reps stated it was because of filming schedule conflicts in Ireland, she still wonders if it has something to do with the group she started.
“It wasn’t a serious thought to me that he would cancel,” she said. “I didn’t think James Franco was that affected by what I had to say.”
Moore started the group when she was a senior at the university because she thought UCLA students had better options available. She found fellow students who agreed with her, so she decided to take her ideas online.
What she wasn’t expecting was the outcry of negative responses from people who didn’t even attend the school. She advises a thick skin for anyone who wants to make their views public.
“If you are going to take your stand, be prepared to defend your arguments and articulate them well,” Moore said. “People are going to disagree with you no matter how trivial it might be.”
Mike Mitchell, the artist behind the “I’m With Coco” artwork and Facebook fan page, said that people shouldn’t dismiss groups like Gilford’s campaign too quickly. Mitchell’s efforts may not have been able to keep Conan O’Brien on NBC, but Mitchell claims that his Facebook group, which has more than a million fans, was still a success since the point was to support O’Brien rather than crusade against the network. A representative from NBC confirmed that the network was well aware of the “I’m With Coco” Facebook campaign, but declined to comment on the situation.
“I felt that Conan was getting shafted and I was a fan of his for so long,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to do something to show my support.”
What Mitchell wasn’t expecting was a boost in his artistic career. Since the Facebook campaign, he’s been able to book more gallery shows and get more freelance work for ad agencies. And he met O’Brien.
“It’s just weird that you create an image, and it goes insanely viral and ends up on TV and billboards,” he admitted.
A word from the creators
Gilford’s grateful for his fan support. He found out about the nomination campaign when an “FNL” crew member handed him a newspaper story about the group.
“Us on the show, we know how quality it is,” he explained. “We started to think, ‘Really, why aren’t people watching this?’ Then, we just got used to it. Early on, we thought, ‘Who cares how many people are watching it? We’re just going to do it well.’ ”
No longer a series regular, but with several guest-starring spots, Gilford said that “FNL” is the best show he’s worked on. More than getting an Emmy nod, he hopes the campaign will get more people to watch the show so everyone can get credit for their hard work.
“It’s really nice and fun and exciting,” he admitted. “At the same time, I’m not going to let it get my hopes up.”
Head writer and executive producer Jason Katims agrees Gilford did an amazing job on the show and thinks no matter what happens, it’s a good thing.
“It’s great to see people inspired to get behind Zach like this,” he commented by e-mail.
As for Gilford himself, he’s checked out the fan page, but couldn’t bring himself to join the group.
“I clicked on it once, read the first two or three things,” he said as he laughed. “I don’t need to smoke up my own a--. I can’t bring myself to be a fan of myself.”