Emmy Noms Feature a Few Real Surprises

With yesterday’s 63rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards nominations announcement came the usual frenzied follow-ups: TV critics’ listings of “snubs” and “shockers,” most of which weren’t.

But there were a few eyebrow-raising selections among nominations submitted by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ 15,000+ eligible voters. Maybe not full-out shockers, exactly, but picks that were most definitely surprising. Whether or not they’re any good isn’t the only thing that matters. How they became 2011 Emmy Award contenders has as much to do with pre-nomination campaigns.

In the Outstanding Drama Series category, for example: It’s full of fan favorites. One unexpected standout, however, is HBO’s Game of Thrones.

The medieval fantasy epic, based on George R.R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire books, would normally be passed over by Emmy voters, who have a reputation for resisting “genre” programming. But HBO positioned Thrones as a compelling, character-driven series — with a growing viewership — that just happened to take place in a medieval setting.

Viewing screeners with that mindset — as well as knowledge of HBO’s track record and perhaps, an idea that “genre” was becoming more mainstream (think Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings), Emmy voters gave Game of Thrones 13 nominations. Still, though Thrones‘ has managed to exceed expectations and garnered critical recognition, it’s also stirred controversy over excessive nudity and violence — and of course, that whole male-skewing “genre” thing.

That’s likely to add fire to already fierce competition, in the form of AMC’s three-time winner Mad Men, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (a first-time nom), the fifth season of Showtime’s Dexter, and CBS’s The Good Wife. Plus, DirecTV’s Friday Night Lights is now wrapping up its fifth and final season; to end with a trophy would be positively poetic, something straight out of an FNL storyline.

If Thrones doesn’t score the award for best drama, it may not be overlooked entirely. There’s a good chance Peter Dinklage will take home the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. His “scene-stealing turn as Tyrion Lannister has been almost universally praised,” says People magazine, praising it several more times. (As well they should! Dinklage, by the way, was also the highlight of Death at a Funeral.)

Also surprising were nominations for Outstanding Miniseries or Movie, formerly two categories combined this year for the first time. Along with HBO’s Too Big to Fail (about the 2008 U.S. fiscal crisis), PBS’s pre-WWII drama Downton Abbey, Starz’s The Pillars of the Earth, and HBO’s Cinema Verite (about the first reality show, on PBS), Emmy voters nominated The Kennedys, the controversial eight-part “dramatic interpretation”/miniseries unceremoniously axed by the History channel reportedly under pressure from the remnants of the real Camelot clan. It also received a number of acting nominations.

Labeled “not a fit for the History brand” and subsequently shunned by other networks, the $25m miniseries seemed destined for direct-to-DVD oblivion. In February, though, the then-under-the-radar ReelzChannel network bought the project’s U.S. rights for about $7m — an expensive gamble, but one Reelz execs bet would drive viewership and put a spotlight on the network. And they were right. On its first night, April 3, The Kennedys set a ReelzChannel ratings record of 1.9m viewers.

With limited resources but complete conviction, ReelzChannel bankrolled marketing efforts for The Kennedys — in-theater and TV spots, online, and print ads — as well as a targeted Emmy-nomination consideration campaign.

“We weren’t necessarily loved by the media; we weren’t on a premium cable channel; we didn’t have tons of [Emmy-consideration marketing] money,” said The Kennedys creator Joel Surnow. “The thing I’m happiest about is that a bunch of people got the screeners, watched it and voted for it.”

Given the competition, the nominations may have to suffice. Also in the category is this year’s most nominated program overall, with a remarkable 21 nods: HBO’s remake of Mildred Pierce, starring Kate Winslet in the role originally made famous in 1945 by Joan Crawford.

Set to air Sunday, Sept. 18 on Fox, the 2011 Emmy Awards will be produced for the first time this year by reality-show mastermind Mark Burnett, and hosted by Glee‘s Jane Lynch, last year’s winner for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

And now that the nominations are out of the way, the folks at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences can focus on what really matters: how to get viewers to tune in to the awards.