Likely no one was surprised that HBO picked up 111 Emmy nominations, or that Netflix grabbed 91.
Perhaps more surprising was truTV, which picked up the first Emmy nomination in network history when Billy on the Street, an unscripted show starring Billy Eichner, was nominated in the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series category.
Chris Linn, truTV president, said the nomination is a huge deal for a network that rebranded itself as a comedy outlet just a few years ago. “We’ve worked really hard to change the brand,” he said. “This is great validation for what we set out to do.”
Besides showing that the truTV strategy has paid off, the nomination also draws more attention to the network, Linn said. “It means more premium projects, and a higher level of talent,” he said.
Billy on the Street sees Eichner, microphone in hand, mixing it up with people on the streets of New York in a lively game show format. It debuted on Fuse, where Billy on the Street ran for three seasons. It shifted to truTV in 2015, with seasons four and five airing there. Eichner is an executive producer, as well as the host.
TruTV is part of Turner. The network was born in 2008, the reboot of the former Court TV, with a focus on reality. In the fall of 2014, the network pitched a “Way More Fun” rebranding that positioned it as a comedy destination.
To be sure, the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series category is a tight one. NBC’s Saturday Night Live, HBO’s Tracey Ullman’s Show, IFC’s Portlandia and Documentary Now! and Comedy Central’s Drunk History are also in the running. The category itself is only a few years old, said Daniel Montgomery, senior editor at awards tracking site Gold Derby, with Inside Amy Schumer winning in 2015 and Key & Peele winning last year.
Montgomery notes that Saturday Night Live is in a strong position, thanks to huge viewership last season, many drawn to Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of President Donald Trump, and the 22 Emmy nominations the show picked up, tied with HBO’s Westworld for the most on TV. But he notes that Billy on the Street would be more in-line with the previous two winners — a show driven by the comedic vision of its creator. “It’s possible voters look for something like that,” he said, “instead of a broad ensemble like Saturday Night Live.”
That Eichner is involved with a variety of TV projects, including season seven of FX’s American Horror Story and NBC’s Hairspray Live, puts him in contact with a wide variety of TV Academy members, added Montgomery. “He’s certainly in it with a shot,” he said. “A strong case could be made for Billy.”
Eichner has been making the rounds on the chat shows to keep his name and face on people’s minds, including a recent appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers. “What’s another award gonna do for Saturday Night Live?” Eichner wondered to Meyers. “I know I’m supposed to just be nice and gracious and happy to be nominated, but that is simply not the case.”
While truTV has bought trade ads in support of Billy on the Street, Linn said Eichner makes the strongest case for the show to win. “Billy being out there, advocating for himself, cuts through most of the clutter,” he said.
While a win on Emmys night September 17 would delight Linn, he says the nomination alone means a ton for truTV. “It’s such an incredibly crowded TV landscape, and Billy keeps truTV top of mind,” he said. “For truTV to be talked about with the other nominees is meaningful to us.”
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below
Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.