Picture May 17, 2001. In the final seconds of the season seven finale of “Friends,” Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel reveals she’s pregnant — but who’s the father? This was a classic May sweeps cliffhanger, luring viewers and reaping advertising dollars for NBC.
Most shows used to kick off in the fall, air big episodes in November and February, and go out with a bang in May. Baby announcements, marriage proposals and sudden deaths were just a few of the popular plot twists used in spring season finales to hook viewers and build anticipation for the fall season.
Network television still largely follows that model, but the streamers and premium cable competitors of the new guard tend to operate with different goals. Rather than angling for ratings, those companies are releasing new seasons of popular TV shows — “Ted Lasso,” “Succession,” “The Mandalorian,” “ The Last of Us,” and “ Yellowjackets ” — with an eye to Primetime Emmy Award recognition.
Everyone wants to be fresh in the minds of voters, said Joyce Eng, a senior editor of the Hollywood awards-centric website Gold Derby.
“A lot of networks, streamers and campaigners will capitalize on recency bias,” she said.
For a TV series to be eligible for a Primetime Emmy, it must air between June 1 and May 31 of the following year. Six episodes of a returning season need to air by May 31 to qualify for a series category. The cast and crew then cross their fingers for nominations, which this year will be announced July 12, followed by the Emmy telecast on September 18, when the awards are handed out.
Limited series have to air all their episodes by May 31 in order to be eligible for nomination. In March, Amazon Prime’s highly anticipated “ Daisy Jones & The Six ” dropped its 10 episodes in four batches.
It can be a scramble for shows to finish by the end of May: “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+ drops its final episode of season three, and maybe the entire series, on May 31. The fifth and final season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” returns on Amazon on April 14 and swiftly wraps by May 26.
If a returning series does not release six episodes of its season by the May 31 deadline, the remaining “hanging” episodes can be nominated in categories that only require a single episode to enter, such as guest actor.
Season three of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiered June 5, 2019 — which was too late for Emmy eligibility that year. Rather than sit the year out though, “they found a loophole,” Eng said. They submitted three episodes that had aired in 2018 during the previous season for individual achievement categories, and earned 11 nominations.
When it comes to scheduling, network and streamer executives maintain tight control over the release-date calendar.
“They choose when we go,” said Rob Eric, chief creative officer and executive producer of Scout Productions, behind the Emmy-winning reality series “Queer Eye.” This year, he has four series premiering right before the deadline.
“We can make suggestions, but really they’re in charge of how that rollout looks,” he said of the platforms.
Release dates are not always entirely about potential accolades.
“Sometimes a series is released because it’s timely and speaks to what’s happening in the world,” said Tony Phelan, who created “A Small Light” with Joan Rater. The NatGeo series tells the story of Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank and her family.
“It’s in direct response to what’s happening in the world, specifically in America in terms of division and the rise in nationalism and antisemitism,” Phelan said of the show.
Still, to end the show in time for award eligibility, “ A Small Light ” will release two episodes each week on National Geographic, premiering May 1 and ending May 31.
“How did that happen?” Phelan asked in mock surprise of the reason behind the show’s timeline.
It should be noted that shows released in late summer and fall can still garner attention from awards committees — just a little later. Netflix dropped all nine episodes of “Squid Game” in September 2021 — and it was still nominated for last year’s Emmy Awards, including best drama series. Lee Jung-jae also won best actor in a drama series, making history as the first person to win in the drama category for a non-English speaking role.
The critically acclaimed and popular series “The Bear” debuted its first season last June, but it was too late for the 2022 Emmy Awards. By premiering in the summer though, the Hulu show shined and wasn’t drowned out by competitors. And the Emmy Awards aren’t everything: Star Jeremy Allen White cleaned up at the Golden Globes, where he won best actor in a musical or comedy series.
“There are just so many shows, so many streaming services, and people don’t have the time,” Eng said. “From the studio and network standpoint, maybe you should pull something like ‘The Bear’ and drop it in the summer and build that momentum because that was a word-of-mouth hit.”
Still, some award shows reign supreme.
Eric Korsh, the president of Scout Productions, distilled the value of award recognition: The Emmys, he said, “are about defining the best in television.”