Emmy Season Kicks Off

Academy chief Shaffner touts plans for a better telecast

As Emmy season begins (the nomination period for the 61st annual Primetime Emmy Awards runs June 5-26), Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Chairman John Shaffner is charged with leading the academy at a time of great change and uncertainty. Several tweaks have been made to major Emmy Award categories this year, the telecast deal for the show expires next year, and the pressure is on to deliver a better awards show following last year's critically panned, multi-hosted affair. Last week, ATAS and telecast partner CBS announced that the awards show would be moved up a week earlier than planned, to Sept. 13.

Shaffner spoke with B&C Executive Editor Melissa Grego about what ATAS learned not to do this year with the awards telecast, how the academy will approach the TV rights renewal, and more. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

The Emmys telecast, the pride of the TV business, got slammed pretty badly by critics last year. They were particularly critical of the multi-host format. How do you plan to follow that up?

Yeah, the multi-host format. It seemed like a good idea. All these people with hit programs, they're so talented, bright and smart. But I think it was a lesson that we all have to be reminded of: Sometimes as much as we love the concept of a committee doing something, it can result in a deadlock. It was a committee—with five hosts. And tough for them and the producers to determine together what will work.

Hopefully we'll be able to work with our broadcast partner [CBS] this year, and they will be able to identify someone who can walk us through the Emmy evening and tie it together better. We also toyed with a hand-off type of program.

The other thing about last year was the 60th anniversary and trying to weave in a sense of honoring the past. We just had a lot of masters to serve. This year we can go back to the simple-serve of greatness in television; stick to the year in TV as opposed to years of TV. And don't be winging it.

What do you expect CBS to bring to the telecast as partner?

The great thing is [CBS President-CEO] Les [Moonves], he's a real fan of television. CBS is a classy network and they're going to be properly respectful, but I think that we also see CBS has lot of fun on their network. So I think we're going to see a deep respect for work done in our medium, and have some fun with it.

Do you expect Moonves to be very hands-on with the telecast?

He's got a lot on his plate, but I think as the “daddy” there, things won't get too far from where his philosophies are. I know that he keeps an eye on things. Also he has a great team, which I can say about all the networks.

It's always refreshing as we enter the process of planning the show, the enthusiasm and passion that people bring to the broadcast. This is an exciting time of the year. We can talk about what happens afterward afterward, but while we're raising the child we have great hopes.

Where does the telecast deal cycle stand?

Last time around, the networks and the organization struck an eight-year deal. This year it is on CBS, next year on NBC [the last year of the deal]. According to the rules, we can begin conversing with the group 90 days before the telecast. It's been tradition to wait until after the last telecast [of the deal]. We will probably truly begin after the telecast, in September 2010. But we might have a preliminary lunch or two.

So much has happened in last 12 months in American media, we've got to let the next year roll out and examine what's best for everybody.

Emmys are the opportunity to showcase the best on TV—be it broadcasting, cable-casting, sat-casting, Webcasting. And really come together and celebrate. It's the one time of year we put aside our competitive nature, though it is an evening of competition, and celebrate achievements and the impact of the medium.

Did it give you pause that NATAS struggled a bit to gain a broadcast partner for the Daytime Emmys?

It gave me the pause to consider that daypart is becoming a much more difficult way to define work on television. Since we’re now sisters and friends again [ATAS and NATAS settled an arbitration decision on honoring broadband video earlier this year], we’ve had conversations about it.

They’re looking for how to balance their broadcast with the traditional fare of daytime drama, with so much of the other fare available in daytime now. Genre-wise, there’s great opportunity to develop a franchise in the world of informational TV, the talk show programs like Dr. Phil, The Doctors, Rachael Ray, all that kind of stuff. It’s like continuing education—the daytime TV course. Lots of people are going to school on the tube during the day.

So there are good brain-chewers. Daypart still defines a lot of genre, but where things are going—with digital video recorders, the Web—we’re screwing dayparts all around.

We’re always, always, always part of a continual evolution. It’s about accepting change, letting change happen to you, responding appropriately, but we’re not going to create change.

You settled your differences with NATAS, and neither organization will be handing out Broadband Emmys. Rather, Web programs compete with broadcast and cable now by genre. They just have to be of a certain length. But other awards are popping up to honor Web content. Why won’t the academy do so?

We’re going to see everything continue to merge, so we don’t want to set up awards and systems too specific by the technology. We want to continue to look at genres and formats of the programs. We’re already seeing enormous growth in longer-form original content on the Web.

In our special-class categories, there is opportunity for entries in shortform work. That is one thing we do identify that is specific to the Internet. What we’re seeing is huge amount of product going in there. We’re going to be watching in the next couple of years.

We’re not an organization that is going to rush; we’ll make sure there is valuable content vying in an important contest.

We kind of have a standard with our girl [the Emmy]; it has to be an achievement of a major order.

We’re not going to divvy up the Webisphere into a bunch of categories. I compare it to what occurs in Hollywood: The Directors Guild, Writers Guild, cinematographers, hair and makeup, art directors all have evenings and give out 15 to 20 awards. It’s just not appropriate for the TV academy and the Emmys to be in that kind of business.

We’re making space available for product that reaches the highest levels, and we’re going to evolve as necessary. It took us awhile to come around [to the idea] of a reality competition category. But when we did, we had lots of product in contention, and that made it a great contest.

Why did the academy separate series and specials in the variety-music-comedy category?

The work that is done night after night on a program like The Tonight Show is in many respects different from work done on a special-event telecast like the Oscars. We’ve been working with the guilds on doing this for a long time.

You also added a sixth nomination slot for comedy and drama series and the performer awards within them. And those series nominations will be made by the entire academy membership. How come?
These changes make the awards more inclusive; it lets more people be nominees. When I look at the list of nominees in most categories, I’m stunned by the quality of work that continues to be underappreciated. This will help address that and the amount of great work out there.

How will it affect the competition?

It’s going to maybe make room for some new people, which will be fun. It will split the votes differently. If you’re a student of statistics and study numbers of the game, it does change things. I think it will be good for the nomination process and also very healthy for the final blue-ribbon panels; it will make final judgments [be based on] more contenders.

How is online screening coming along for the Emmys? Can members go to one place online and view all the contenders?

There are two separate subjects: the for-your-consideration online screening process, and the official nomination period screening. We help various programmers and presenters of programs find an audience [for their FYC campaigns] during the nomination process. A lot really take advantage of the opportunity.

We’re just at the beginning of a couple of categories where we’re doing any online screening [for official voting purposes]. The challenge is that we’re still in a transitional period where the technology is not available to everyone we’d like to reach. It’s one thing to deliver sound, but with moving image on your computer at home, the experience is varied.

I have to reflect with amusement on the transition from the way screenings were done, especially the old days with big, old tape machines—Beta or VHS machines—in hotels. Then the big transition was from VHS or Beta to DVD. Last year was the first year all entries were sent on DVD.

When do you anticipate that academy members will be able to go to one place online to view entries?

We’re working toward that. There will definitely be a transition, but it may happen sooner than we think it will. I’m just not sure when.

Some categories will [move slowly], like cinematography. Music might go sooner. It depends on the individual peer groups. Judging happens within peer groups.