Q&A: John Shaffner


With three months on the job, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' new chairman and CEO, John Shaffner, has been experiencing challenges different from any of his predecessors'.

Technology has changed TV audiences' viewing habits -- and prompted a dispute between ATAS and its East Coast sister organization, NATAS, over honoring emerging media. At the same time, ATAS' annual awards show -- the Emmys -- faces declining ratings as it approaches its 60th installment. Shaffner tuned in with Noel Murray for The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the work ahead.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's at the top of your to-do list?

John Shaffner: The remainder of this year we're really going to be focused on recognizing the community of television. When you think about the millions of people who tune into (Fox's) "American Idol," that's almost the only remaining community experience that our society has at such a scale. Our Emmy program this year is recognizing its 60th anniversary, and we're going to be speaking a lot about how television creates communities and how we who make it are a community.

THR: What's the status of the dispute between ATAS and NATAS over giving Emmys to online media and mobisodes?

Shaffner: We're in what we'd like to believe is the final phase of the legal process. Once the legal world is finished with us, then I'm hoping we can sit down and have a meaningful dialogue about that Internet space. With the evolution of content and the evolution of transmission, we have to make sure that there's a valid contest in that world, and that there's enough quality product to recognize. Considering the kind of accomplishment it is for a dramatic series to win an Emmy, and what that represents in terms of the talent involved, we'd never want to take away from that by handing out too many statues. Yes, there is an art to the shortform, but how far do we want to parse this? That's the essence of the conversation that we've never really had with NATAS but that I'm hopeful we can have with them in the near future.

THR: Does the television academy pay much attention to critics who complain that the Emmys don't always reward the best-reviewed, best-regarded shows?

Shaffner: No award show is going to succeed at being all things to all people, but to become an active, fully voting member of the academy does require some accomplishment on each individual's part. Critics have a very important role to play in all of media business. And oftentimes the critics, in their process of identifying and writing about great programming, help the academy membership notice things. But in the end, when the academy members are actually placing their votes, they're voting on a specific episode or group of episodes, and when you've been through that voting process, you understand better why the academy doesn't always vote in agreement with either the critics or the public.

THR: How do the newly created Television Academy Honors differ from the Emmys?

Shaffner: The Honors are purposefully looking for what we like to call "television with a conscience" -- that enlightens and informs and educates and entertains. And we also consider the risk involved. It may not be to the presenters' commercial benefit to create or promote certain programs, but because there's value in it for the audience that's more measurable than just dollars, they do it anyway. There's so much TV right now that it's easy to get lost, but if you were to do -- as you do in the kitchen -- a reduction sauce, you'd find that television is as good as it's ever been.