Television Academy at 60
The small-screen organiztion looks to the future, hoping to keep audiences tuned in.
Television today is everywhere: time-shifted to TiVo; downloaded to a laptop computer, video iPod or other mobile device; chopped into snippets to share on YouTube.com. Every once in a while, it's even viewed as God and David Sarnoff intended -- albeit with a high-definition upgrade -- in real time, on an actual TV set. In order to survive, television has had to evolve -- and in order to evolve, it has proved far more flexible than anyone intended.
The same could be said for the medium's representative, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The Television Academy turns 60 this month while facing the unique challenge of catching up to and reflecting a media revolution nearly as explosive as that which erupted when it was demonstrated that a collection of tubes could transmit pictures and sound.
How does an organization founded during the industry's infancy get a handle on the current TV landscape while remaining a relevant guiding force for a membership of more than 14,000? For one thing, the academy has begun to rethink its organization and definition.
"We don't think in terms of just TV anymore but more broadly of the telecommunications business," activities committee chairman Karen Miller says. "We serve the industry across all peer groups on both sides of the camera. As the entertainment industry has changed, so have we."
Those changes have walked a tightrope between celebrating the past and learning to interpret and honor the new. Chief operating officer Alan Perris notes that the academy "is a lot of moving parts, the only group that puts all of the different components of the TV business under a single heading."
Given such a mandate, organization is key for the Television Academy. Today's membership must be attended to through a diverse array of screenings and panel discussions, not to mention the massive annual undertaking that is the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony. Executive committee first vice chairman John Shaffner says the academy is dedicated to "providing a community for the people who work in the industry that we work hard to enhance through our activities and events and educational programs."
Then there is the past to protect: The academy has established a hall of fame to honor the medium's greats, and the stalwart Television Academy Foundation has partnered with UCLA -- which stores early programming and kinescopes for future study -- and USC, which houses scripts, books, photographs and other memorabilia, including items previously stored in the academy's small library.
The foundation also is proud of its 9-year-old Archive of American Television, which has preserved nearly 500 interviews -- some as long as seven hours -- with TV veterans. The interviews are available to the public at tvinterviewsarchive.blogspot.com.
Students at California State University, Fullerton, and other institutions are assigned archived videos to watch, but AAT director of production and research Karen Herman notes, "I get a lot of feedback from people that have just stumbled across them and look up their favorite show or see an actor they really enjoyed and couldn't stop watching."
But the future is keeping the Television Academy on its toes, and the organization has made great strides in that direction. In 2001, the two-member peer groups that comprise the board of governors expanded to include an interactive media group, which this year awarded its first Primetime Emmy for content distributed solely through broadband.
"This academy is getting better and better at educating our members regarding the evolution of TV, as well as recognizing the outstanding achievements of those working in interactive platforms," interactive media governor Marcelino Ford-Livene says. "We're recognizing that television is now watched as part of three distinctly different experiences ... and in each specific area, you find TV programming designed to fit the field being served."
Keeping in touch with new-media and technological developments remains critical, according to Miller, but they must be integrated into the bigger industry picture. "We put a lot of energy toward bridging our past with our future," she says.
Considering the Television Academy's six-decade life span, there is plenty of history through which to sift. Early on, the jury was out as to whether television would fly -- or even walk -- but in 1946, trade journalist Syd Cassyd took a chance and created a clearinghouse organization for professionals in the nascent medium. On the day Cassyd called the first meeting of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, only about 4,000 Los Angeles homes were wired for television, and only about 50,000 U.S. households had TV sets. He formed the group with an audience of fewer than 10 people, but about 250 were in attendance by the fifth meeting.
"When you look back 60 years, the television community was a small group of people going where no man had gone before: They were completely disenfranchised from the radio, theater and film businesses," Shaffner says. "Early broadcasters had to be visionaries. Most people didn't believe you'd be able to get the American public to buy this box, and the foundation of the academy filled the need to create a community of people having similar problems in their workplaces."
The Television Academy's earliest days were difficult and often discouraging for Cassyd and the six other men who would share in the struggle as its founding fathers. As Cassyd, who died in 2000 at age 91, noted in his 1976 memoir "Emmy Awards Confidential," the major early obstacle to the academy's growth was a lack of support from the film industry, which perhaps understandably viewed "radio with pictures" as a threat to the major Hollywood studios and the motion picture business in general. Most influential showbiz figures snubbed Cassyd and his cohorts.
In addition, a regional rift began to splinter the young organization during the early 1950s. A New York-based group headed by Ed Sullivan took exception with what it perceived as a provincial Emmy bias favoring programs with predominantly Los Angeles-rooted audiences. The dispute simmered throughout the academy's first quarter-century and resulted in the establishment of the New York-based National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
As the industry's reach and resources expanded during the 1960s and '70s -- then into the era of cable, satellite and digital delivery -- it became clear that the academy's mission and composition would have to expand with the times. The Television Academy Foundation was established in 1959 to give the organization a philanthropic arm through which to give back to the community and its member base.
In 1979, the foundation established the annual College Television Awards, a national competition that provides industry recognition for excellence in student-produced films and videos. The ceremony, produced by the fo
undation, added Web coverage this year via mtvU.com.
Concurrent with the CTA competition is the foundation's summer internship program, which offers 35 college students a paid eight-week hands-on apprenticeship in one of 29 areas within the telecommunications field.
"Our internship program is one of the most sought-after in the country," says Sony Pictures Television president Steve Mosko, the foundation's chairman for the past two years. "We've also set up a new-leadership council for young executives in the TV business so they can discuss issues that need to be addressed and broaden their awareness of what the foundation is doing. It's a very exciting time to be overseeing this academy's fundraising efforts, which I know sounds corny but happens to be true."
Of perhaps more tangible benefit to the TV business rank and file is the networking void the academy sees as its mandate to fill, serving as a community bulletin board to spread the word about available jobs.
"That aspect is critically important: Once you're a member of the academy, you should feel part of a club where everyone is there for one another," Shaffner says. "In TV, it's all about contacts and the social experience and running into people. What it does to foster relationships gives the academy significance apart from everything else."
Changes in the work force during the 1960s provided another opportunity for the Television Academy to adapt. As the industry began to open to nonwhites and a growing number of women, the academy followed suit: The Los Angeles chapter elected a female president, actress Gail Patrick Jackson, in 1960. But her ascendancy proved an anomaly, according to Nancy Bradley Wiard, a governors appointee to the executive committee and an academy member since 1972.
"Twenty years ago, when I joined the board of governors, there were a grand total of three women in the group," Wiard says. "I'm so proud of the fact that the Television Academy of today is no longer the boys' club it was back in the mid-1980s; there is so much diversity now within the governor ranks as far as age, gender, race, even physical disability. It took a real refocusing over the years to make that happen."
To that end, the academy's diversity committee was established in 2002, in large part to help the medium expand its notions of who could appear onscreen or work behind a camera.
"Our role isn't simply to foster diversity within the membership but (also) to provide a forum for helping to tackle the challenges of diversifying TV itself," diversity committee chairman Candace Bond McKeever says. "We've formed strategic partnerships with those in the business who espouse diversity and (are) pushing to help get more minorities in positions both in front of and behind the camera."
McKeever believes that the percentage of minorities among the Television Academy membership remains inadequate but notes: "We've cast a wide net. Our definition of diversity now extends to representing the deaf and disabled, cultural minorities, women and (persons of all) sexual preferences."
Forming the backbone of today's evolved academy are peer groups that represent writers, producers, directors, costume designers, casting directors, makeup artists and hair-stylists, members of the interactive media and workers in electronic production and visual effects. That eclectic dynamic plays out in screenings and panel discussions that take place regularly at North Hollywood's Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre, which opened in 1997.
In addition to such behind-the-scenes looks at current shows, the Television Academy offers professional-development gatherings that explore such topics as Creating Television Program Partnerships With Corporate Sponsors, Making Cents of New Tax Incentives, and Budgeting and Script Software for a New Millennium.
In the spotlight
For all it does for members behind the scenes, however, the Television Academy remains best-represented to the public through the Primetime Emmys. The Emmys also are the nonprofit group's bread and butter, with rights fees to the ceremony accounting for the biggest slice of its annual operating budget.
While the academy has struggled to make ends meet for much of its history, it is enjoying an unprecedented infusion of revenue thanks to a lucrative eight-year Emmy broadcast-license deal signed in 2002 with ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. The academy took in $5.5 million during each of the deal's first four years, and that sum will kick up to $7.5 million during each of the four years beginning in 2007 -- a sweet windfall for an organization whose previous Emmycast pact garnered $3 million annually.
In one sense, then, the Emmys are brimming with health. But the awards, first handed out in 1949, have always come with their share of controversy. Hank Rieger, the first elected president of the (West Coast) Television Academy and founder of the organization's official magazine, Emmy, guesses that, even during the ceremony's first year, "there must have been complaining about who got nominated and won."
This year proved no exception: A blue-ribbon panel helped to determine the nominees in six key Emmy categories, but the industry was boiling because of perceived omissions. Senior vp awards John Leverence, charged with receiving an earful of antagonism each year since he joined the academy in 1980, has learned to keep a cool head.
"You really just have to roll with it because I find that in any given year, there is always going to be the same quantity of grief, aggravation and general distress," he says. "It's the nature of this beast; you can't take it personally."
Shaffner believes that the Emmys "obviously still matter a lot. They remain a great way for a group of professionals to honor each other, to peruse the landscape and single out those projects and individuals that are making a mark."
Leverence emphasizes that the prognosis for the Emmys' ongoing importance and prestige is good -- but then, he's paid to be the chief Emmy defender.
"The rap has always been that the Emmys too often honored the same shows and individuals over and over, yet we're doing much better on that score of late," Leverence says. "In 2004, the prime honorees included 24 repeat winners and only six new ones; in 2006, it was 15 and 15. But we're well aware the controversy will always be there. Our mandate is to stay current, stay fair and stay accurate in terms of reflecting the true choices of our voting members."
The Television Academy has proved able to rethink and retool through the years -- had it not, a 60th anniversary would have been unlikely. But what it does during the coming years, and how it decides to do so, will require more than creating a more-inclusive membership or recognizing new technology. Because television no longer is simply a box on four legs in the living room, the academy also must redefine itself for a majority of the 111 million-plus U.S. television-owning households.
Things were much simpler back when Syd Cassyd and his fellow academy founding fathers attempted to envision the future.
"I've been a part of this organization for more than 40 years, and when I joined, the only thing that mattered was the Emmys: We had 5,000 members, almost no money and pretty much nothing going on apart from the awards," Rieger says. "Now, look at these guys: It's every ounce a real service association, with nearly triple the membership. The board of governors has as many women as men, and, oh my God, do I envy the big money they have in the coffers today. It's a good envy, but I honestly never thought I'd see the day where these guys weren't having to get by on a wing and a prayer."
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