It's no coincidence that "Mad Men" premiered its new season last night — just days before ballots are shipped to Emmy voters to pick winners. TV networks like AMC often air new seasons of Emmy contenders at strategic times to boost award hopes.
Cable series can be more flexible about air dates than can broadcast channels, which usually conform to traditional launch times, such as September or January. But there are exceptions. NBC waited till May sweeps before airing the most recent season of "Friday Night Lights," which originally aired on DirecTV last fall. End of the Emmy eligibility period was May 31. Voting on nominations began June 4. Therefore, NBC gave "Friday Night Lights" perfect scheduling placement, and it paid off with two top nominations for the first time ever: bids for best lead actor and actress for Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.
Such strategic Emmy scheduling dates back to "Sex and the City," which premiered on HBO on June 6, 1998. It wasn't eligible for awards that September, of course, but it was given high profile during voting season in order to position the show in the minds of TV academy members in the future. For the next few years, "Sex and the City" continued to air its newest season in June just as voters were casting ballots on the previous season. The strategy paid off with repeated nominations in top races, including a victory as best comedy series of 2001.
HBO employed similar scheduling strategies for "Six Feet Under" and "Entourage," which never won best series but nonetheless scored frequent top nominations. The notable exception to the HBO approach was "The Sopranos." Its first two seasons aired January to April in 1999 and 2000. Season 3 aired March 4 to May 20, 2001. Season 4 was telecast from Sept. 15 to Dec. 2, 2002. "The Sopranos" was consistently nominated for best drama series but lost its first four bouts to "The Practice" and "The West Wing." It wasn't until its fifth time up that "The Sopranos" finally won best drama series for the first time after episodes aired between March 7 and June 6, 2004.
Most recently, HBO pulled off the impossible by breaking the curse against vampire shows that once dogged "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which never reaped a bid for best series despite constant cries from TV critics, industry leaders and fans. "True Blood" just nabbed a bid for best drama series after launching its third season on June 13 — just days after the start of nomination voting.
Friendly air dates may have helped "Weeds" to reap its first nomination as best comedy series last year — and unfriendly ones may have hurt it at the current derby. Last year "Weeds' " fifth season began perfectly with Emmy voting — early June — resulting in the Showtime series' first nomination for best series. However, this year the newest season won't air until Aug. 16. The last new episode of "Weeds" aired nearly a year ago — on Aug. 31. Did it fail to get nominated again this year because of the absence of new episodes between then and now?
Photos: "Mad Men" (AMC), "Sex and the City" (HBO), "True Blood" (HBO)