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CEO Askin Keeps Eye on Emmy's Future

ATAS' Chairman-Chief Exec Aims to Globalize Brand, Stay Ahead of Changes in Industry

With the Emmy nominations out and the awards ceremony around the corner, this is a busy time of year for Dick Askin, chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. He talked with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about the Emmys' submission and voting process, the challenges he faces in guiding the direction of the academy and what the future might hold for the Primetime Emmys.

TelevisionWeek: Tell me about an aspect of your position that people may not know about.
Dick Askin: It's an interesting position. First of all, it's an elected position. You have to run and be elected by the board to be chairman, and it's a large board. We have 54 governors on the board, an executive committee of 15, plus a full-time staff of 60 people. So it's a fairly good-sized organization for a nonprofit.

My role is essentially to look down the horizon and identify the strategic direction that the academy needs to take. How do we make the process better? How do we build the Emmy brand and make it more significant? How do we make the Emmy brand global? We did that by purchasing the International Academy a couple of years ago, and now we're trying to expand their operation.

It's also a fun position. You really do it to give back to the industry. It's a pro bono position, not a paid position. So you're doing it as a way of making the television industry better.

Over the course of the years I've been chair and vice chair, and I've met a tremendous number of very, very talented people -- both stars and writers. You know, the Aaron Sorkins of the world, and Tommy Schlamme and John Wells, some of the most talented people in our business. So in that respect it's been fun and also a privilege to be able to interact with these people.

You know, you never make people happy all the time, so sometimes after these nominations are announced, you should read the

e-mails we receive. Some of them are very humorous. One thing about the fans who take the time to sit and write an e-mail is that they're very passionate and they want to know why "The Wire" wasn't nominated -- what's wrong with you guys? How could you forget "Gilmore Girls'" Lauren Graham? There has been a campaign for her for years. That's probably an example of a very good actress in a show that just didn't have the visibility to be recognized.

TVWeek: Was there any problem caused by the change in executive producers for the Emmys show?
Mr. Askin: No. Every year has its own set of issues. I've done four of these and every year has a different set of things you have to work through. But I'm very, very glad to see Ken Ehrlich back [as executive producer]. I think it all turned out the way it should have all along. Ken has some very interesting, dynamic ideas for the show. It's like playing cards: Every year you're dealt a new hand of cards and you play them to the best of your ability. This year will be very interesting. Fox has been very supportive, and also they have a very wide-open attitude toward the show, so I think they're letting us have some fun, and they're a little more relaxed about what we're going to do than some of the other networks.

TVWeek: How has the Primetime Emmy maintained its preeminence as the television industry's top award?
Mr. Askin: We're going to be celebrating our 60th anniversary next year, and I guess in a lot of ways we have exercised constant vigilance to make sure that the Emmys remain the symbol of excellence in television. What we've really focused on, especially in the last few years, are all the changes that are going on in the business. We've focused on keeping the Emmy Awards relevant to the industry and to today's viewers.

For example, four years ago we added the category of reality television and also reality competition. At that point it was a new genre of television that was just beginning to get some traction. Now, just a few years later, if you look at the new fall schedule for the four networks, I think about half the shows are reality programming. So what we wanted to do years ago and now, too, is embrace change. That's what I've been trying to do, as chairman for the last four years, is to get our board and our members comfortable with the idea of embracing change and have the academy embrace change and try to put it at the forefront.

TVWeek: This is the last season of "The Sopranos," and the finale was one of the most talked-about shows of the television year. Would you submit that episode for outstanding drama series if you were David Chase, the executive producer?
Mr. Askin: That's a good question. I think I probably would, only because I think in a lot of ways that particular episode typified the series. ... It was unpredictable and surprising. In a lot of ways, the ending itself was kind of shocking. David Chase has always done a very good job of surprising the audience and not allowing the audience to anticipate what was going to happen. So I think that would be a pretty good one to submit. I'd have to go back and see what else he's looking at.

I thought it was a wonderful episode. Initially, it was shocking and actually very frustrating, but when I started to think about it the following day, I came to the realization that it was a genius way to end the show. You think you know the ending, but you're just not quite sure. Isn't that clever? That's the way he handled the whole series, if you look at the Tony Soprano character, for example. You don't know whether to like him or to hate him because he's so multifaceted and complex that you probably have both emotions during the season watching what he does. I think that is why that show had so much genius to it.

TVWeek: There's such diversity this year among the nominees for outstanding drama series.
Mr. Askin: This is the golden age of drama. If you look at the five shows, certainly all five deserve to be nominated, but there are probably another five or 10 or even 15 series that could have been serious contenders. I think these last few years have been very difficult in the drama series category, just because of the quality of the episodes that are being produced for broadcast and pay cable, but also for basic cable, the FXs of the world as a good example. Every year the drama category is going to get more and more competitive.

TVWeek: Does the embracing of change by the Emmys include looking beyond the four networks and two premium cable outlets?
Mr. Askin: Yes, it does. Last year we changed our voting policy, our judging policy for nominations, to expand the way we look at programming, essentially to level the playing field, so that the smaller cable networks could have an equal shot of getting their programs viewed and judged by members of the Television Academy. That's where television is going. It's become an extremely fragmented business and we recognize that, and more importantly we've tried to address it and keep up with where the business has gone.

TVWeek: New technology has been incorporated into the Emmys now, including broadband, right?
Mr. Askin: Yes. All the new media, for lack of a better term -- broadband, mobile, etc. -- is now the next frontier that we're focusing on and how to have a stake and a claim to excellence in the new content platforms that are emerging. It's a new type of content that is being produced, let's say, specifically for the Internet and broadband.

TVWeek: Are the blue-ribbon panels at all affected by the access to programming via the Internet, be it via iTunes or the networks' Web sites?
Mr. Askin: No, not really. Prior to their sitting on a blue-ribbon panel, that accessibility may help them increase their familiarity with the shows. Let's say you didn't catch the premiere last night of "Damages" with Glenn Close, for example. Maybe you would go on the FX web site today and watch it. But the blue-ribbon panels specifically, when they sit down to judge, they are judging specific episodes that were submitted by the producers. So they aren't necessarily seeing ones that are offered on a week-to-week basis on the Internet.

TVWeek: How important is the choice of episode submitted to the blue-ribbon panel?
Mr. Askin: I think it's extremely important. In the last couple of years, I've seen some classic examples of producers who have chosen wisely. They've chosen the episode that really captures the flavor of the show and enhances and highlights all the artistic merit of the show. Conversely, I've seen producers who have just made absolute poor choices in what they've submitted. It's not rocket science, but it does require some intuition and some understanding of the judging process.

TVWeek: For years Susan Lucci was nominated for the Daytime Emmy, but rumor has it that she lost year after year because she didn't submit the right episodes to impress the blue-ribbon panel.
Mr. Askin: My understanding is that she was submitting the wrong type of episodes. This is just hearsay, but my understanding is that her producers were continually submitting over-the-top performances where she was extremely dramatic. For whatever reason, that was not what the judges were looking for. When the show finally submitted something that didn't have that over-the-top drama that soaps can have on occasion, that's when she broke her losing streak.

It's also very important in the Primetime Emmy judging process, where you have serialized dramas that are being submitted, that you have to be very careful because you have to assume that the person sitting down could be seeing your show for the first time. If you submit an episode that might be wonderful to a die-hard fan ... to a first-time viewer it might be extremely confusing. That's not going to help your efforts, and I've seen that happen. It really happens too often. There have been a couple of cases in recent years where shows that should have been nominated were not because of the producers' selection of the episode that they submitted.

TVWeek: What do you say to the critics who complain that a show that could use a boost from the Emmys, such as "Friday Night Lights," was overlooked?
Mr. Askin: I understand their frustration. Critics tend to have different sets of criteria than the Emmys do. They don't always align. I think most critics view "Friday Night Lights" as a long shot and some were disappointed that the long shot didn't pay off. But a long shot by definition usually doesn't pay off.

Actually, "Friday Night Lights" is one of my favorite shows; I have it TiVo'd. It did get pretty close to getting nominated, but I think the fact that not enough people were really familiar with it, which is a reflection of the ratings, I think might have hurt it a little bit. But there's always next year.

The purpose of the Emmys is not to keep shows that have marginal ratings on the air. A show needs to stand on its own. Our job is to evaluate excellence, and sometimes you're able to recognize the underdog or the long shot and sometimes you're not.

TVWeek: What do you see in the future for the Primetime Emmys -- will there be more categories, more awards handed out?
Mr. Askin: I think so and you would hope so. Television is not going to remain static, and the Emmys will address those changes. I'll tell you one thing, we can't fit more than 27 or maybe 28 awards in the prime-time show. Some may have to move over to the Creative Arts Awards. We will continue to reflect the television landscape, so I fully expect the Emmys will change over time. I would be disappointed if they didn't.

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