Broadband battle


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Recently, National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences president and CEO Peter Price was having breakfast with Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons when, in the middle of the meal, Parsons declared, "Internet is the television of the 21st century."

Anyone who has been following the media business over the last five years can cite chapter and verse about the ways that Web surfing, blogging, MP3s and online gaming are draining away the traditional consumers of movies, music and, yes, television -- dividing whatever remains of the pie that cable TV sliced thin long ago. But according to Price, Parsons' comment also refers to the fact that more and more people are literally using the Internet to watch television. They're downloading shows from iTunes or streaming them off network Web sites, essentially creating their own programming blocks, free of time restrictions or network affiliations.

"Even five years ago, digital video was not a popular flavor because no one was broadcasting digital, no one was transmitting digital, and very few people had bandwidth to receive digital other than words and maybe pictures," Price says. "Five years later, broadband is not only a function of every office -- it's quickly becoming a function of every home."

On the other coast, Alan Perris agrees. Perris is the COO of the Los Angeles-based Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which split from the New York-based NATAS in 1977, when members on opposite coasts found themselves in perpetual conflict over how to manage the awarding of Emmys (among other issues). After the split, ATAS took over the Primetime Emmys, while NATAS handles news, sports and daytime. "What's coming down the road for all of us is the Internet, which doesn't have a primetime or a daytime," Perris notes. "It's just anytime. And what the two academies are grappling with is who has the rights to what."

Indeed, with TV fans watching shows whenever they want, are the distinctions between primetime and daytime dissolving? "If I used the word 'dissolving,' my friends on the West Coast might get a little excited," Price says. "I'd say the concept of television is transforming because the delivery systems have changed so much."

For Price, an exciting byproduct of this transformation has been the revival of one element of his domain: daytime entertainment. A daypart that had been in decline has perked back up, as people watch in airport lounges, bus stops, the backs of automobiles, offices and on handheld devices and desktops. Soap opera fans are downloading full episodes, and pop culture junkies are catching up with whatever Rosie O'Donnell's doing on ABC's "The View" via YouTube or iFilm.

But that spike in viewing downloaded content has led to a real conflict between ATAS and NATAS: What to do with programs created specifically for the Internet? "Eventually, we're going to have to award programs on the Internet," Perris says. "I don't believe right now that the quality of what you see on the Internet can compete against what the networks and the cable companies are doing. Let's face it: If you do a 20-minute adventure show on the Internet, are you really going to beat (HBO's) 'The Sopranos' or (Fox's) '24' or (NBC's) 'Heroes'? But eventually, there might be a level playing field."

Price, however, is convinced that the future is now. Citing the mission of the TV academies to promote quality by rewarding it, Price says, "We feel that specifically carving out categories for original production on the Internet in those areas is not just a good idea -- it's a really important and necessary idea, or many of these talents won't have a place to be recognized."

To that end, NATAS two years ago created its own Broadband Emmy categories. In one of those categories, NATAS nominated a short called "24: Conspiracy," a cell-phone-only promotional webisode spun off from the popular Fox drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as terrorist-hunter extraordinaire Jack Bauer. Needless to say, ATAS -- already unhappy with NATAS for creating new awards without consulting them -- was doubly unhappy that a short affiliated with a primetime show was nominated.

Price responds: "'24: Conspiracy' elected to enter. We didn't court them -- they found us. I think the question is, if they didn't enter that five-minute made-for-Internet video there, where could they have entered it? By definition, it had no home."

According to the longstanding agreement between ATAS and NATAS, neither body can create new Emmy awards without mutual approval. But that agreement doesn't cover the Internet. The matter of the Broadband Emmys and "24: Conspiracy" is now in arbitration, and because of that, Perris declined to speak about it on the record.

But the position of ATAS since this dispute began reflects what Perris stated above, that online content at the moment doesn't rise to the standards of "Emmy-worthy" -- and if it does, it should have to compete in the regular categories against regular broadcast television.

"The reason we didn't go that way is that if we did that, you're going to have Jack Bauer competing with 'Son of Jack Bauer,'" Price says. "You're going to have a very highly produced, well-known series competing with an aspiring grandchild, who is not known and has a different shape, and a different form, and a different budget and almost certainly a different demographic looking at it.

"Our role is to stay apace with our industry and provide incentives for people to fulfill our mission, which is to recognize excellence in television and media," Price continues. "Both ATAS and NATAS, like the companies we serve, are exploring how we best fulfill our mission. I don't think there's an answer of 'right or wrong.' All I know is that the world's changing, and those who don't engage change -- you know, there was this guy named Darwin. That's the way it goes."