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Memo to Emmy: Online TV Screeners Don’t Work

It's too hard watching Henry VIII have sex on my laptop. I gave it a good try, but I'm going back to the old-fashioned way of watching screeners. Spring means the arrival of Emmy screeners from the TV Academy. Years ago, these stopped being just episodes submitted for consideration and grew into fancy promotional presentations […]

It's too hard watching Henry VIII have sex on my laptop. I gave it a good try, but I'm going back to the old-fashioned way of watching screeners.

Spring means the arrival of Emmy screeners from the TV Academy. Years ago, these stopped being just episodes submitted for consideration and grew into fancy promotional presentations with a screener buried somewhere inside. At first I used to get medium-sized boxes with VHS tapes; then I got even bigger boxes with DVDs. Inside, I found discreet lucite storage cases, faux blood transfusion bags, huge plastic spheres with no purpose, the 10 Commandments reproduced in gunite and a live sapling. Actually, a dead sapling, since that box sat unopened on my conference room table for a while. And in full disclosure, I've had a hand in creating and producing my share of gimmicky entries. Although I had nothing to do with the dead tree.

Last year, the Academy and some television companies made a modest push to offer online viewing of the Emmy hopefuls. This year, that idea's been ramped up a bit, thanks to the perfect storm of tighter budgets, environmental awareness and general industry modesty. The Academy's "For Your Consideration Primetime Emmy Screener Program" offers a password-protected website aggregating company and individual entries. The last few times I checked in, however, only eight entries were there, all from Comedy Central and most already available for viewing on TV.

Some companies are also maintaining separate websites for online viewing. Showtime, which traditionally gets its entries out first, repeated its strategy from last season: an attractive, low-key mailer with DVDs of selected episodes, plus access to a site offering full seasons of the series.

In the spirit of good industry citizenship, I randomly decided to watch an episode of "The Tudors" online (one for which I also had a DVD), with my respectable laptop and a decent broadband connection.

4 p.m. Click to the Showtime site, log on easily, start the episode and try to get comfortable in my desk chair. I've never noticed how annoying the chair's left arm cushion is.

4:02 p.m. I can barely hear the dialogue. Laptop audio that's always been good enough for YouTube viewing of the Dramatic Hamster turns out not to be very effective when trying to focus on plot, characters who kinda look alike and English accents. After tinkering with the audio controls to no avail, I pause to dig out old speakers in my office closet and plug in.

4:08 p.m. Restart episode. Sunlight that makes the office so appealing has now moved. What I thought was a brilliant sepia-toned production concept turns out to be glare and a layer of dust on my laptop screen. Pause to close blinds and find dried-out container of computer screen cleaning wipes.

4:11 p.m. Restart episode. Click "enlarge" button so that picture fills up the screen. Try to stay very focused on the drama — an effort similar to when you're on an airplane, two rows back from the drop-down monitor. As Henry starts some bodice-ripping, I hear incoming e-mail.

So I give up.

I love the user-friendliness of online streaming for that "SNL" skit I missed or a Robert Gibbs press conference when I just don't feel like turning on the TV. But it's a disservice to the hard work and award aspirations of my creative colleagues for me to judge their efforts this way.

Don't consider this a vote to return to the excessive old days of costly chotchke mailings. But it is a heartfelt suggestion to the Academy, the television companies and others who have a vested interest in the Emmys to come up with a reasonable, cost-effective way to let us voters judge the entries where and how they were made to be viewed.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.