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Q&A with ATAS COO Alan Perris

Take a Peek Behind the Curtain -- Insight Into Voting Process, Awards Show Planning

Alan Perris means it when he says he loves television. In his role as chief operating officer of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Mr. Perris indulges his passion for the media as one of the caretakers of the annual Primetime Emmy Awards presentation. Mr. Perris talked with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about the TV industry, his position at ATAS and the upcoming Emmy Awards.

TelevisionWeek: How did you become chief operating officer of ATAS?
Alan Perris: They liked my background because I had come from, first, out of local television, where I was a general manager. Then I was in Los Angeles studio production, where I was the head of first-run programming for Columbia TriStar, Telepictures and Warner Bros. So I'm able to understand management from the local station part as well as understand shows from the studio part, and I love television. I love the fact that I can be a part of honoring excellence.

TVWeek:Why do the Emmys remain such a coveted award?
Mr. Perris: There are many reasons. Let me comment on the Emmy being the icon for television. I believe there are only four iconic awards in entertainment: I believe it's the Oscars in movies, I believe it's the Grammys in music, I believe it's the Tonys in Broadway and I believe it's the Emmys on TV. All the other award shows are not the icons. If someone passes away, they will say Emmy Award winner or Emmy Award nominee with their name, but they may not use one of the lesser awards. So we have a very important brand to uphold.

Secondly, the brand stands for honoring excellence. Critics may not agree with every year and every award, but overall, when you look back over it, we get it right, and that's the good news. To get an Emmy is very important for everyone. In movies, an Oscar might equate to more money. But I think in television, an Emmy is more of a prestige vehicle and may save a show or two if there's one on the cusp. But for the most part, the Emmys just honor that year's best, and I'm thrilled to be part of it.

TVWeek:Are you concerned that you had to change executive producers for the broadcast when Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick had to back out?
Mr. Perris: No. It hasn't been a concern because we found out early enough to get someone else. And Ken Ehrlich produced the show last year, so it isn't like we're bringing in someone who's never done it before. Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick are producing "So You Think You Can Dance," so they just didn't think they'd have enough time to do this, too. We were able to get Ken [Ehrlich], who happened to be available, which is good for us. I know Ken has some surprises planned, but I can't reveal them yet.

TVWeek:What distinguishes the Creative Arts Emmys from the Primetime Emmy broadcast?
Mr. Perris: The academy has 27 peer groups, and the majority of those peer groups are what we designate as creative arts, meaning the people behind the scenes. The marquee awards, which are actors and actresses and shows, are the ones that get all the press. But our academy is made up of 15,000 members, the majority of whom work behind the scenes, whether they're in sound or editing or stunts or makeup. ... These people behind the scenes do the majority of the hard work to get the product you see up on the air, and that's not to belittle the on-air people at all. It's just that those people get all the press and they're the ones everybody sees.

TVWeek:The marquee talent gets the lion's share of the press, as you say, but does that have an effect on how the different peer groups work together on shows?
Mr. Perris: Like any other place of work, when you're thrown together with the same group of people week after week after week, you either become close or you become contentious. But on many of the hit shows, they seem to have real warmth among all the employees.

TVWeek:What's your assessment of this year's nominees?
Mr. Perris: My personal feeling is that this year we got it right. Every year the critics write when you've left something out. Well, let's just take the drama series -- how do you put two pounds of great drama into a one-pound bag? ... When you only have five nominees, you're going to see some critically acclaimed shows, shows the critics like, that just won't get in there. It doesn't mean the shows aren't great that didn't get in. It just means there wasn't enough room. I happen to think we are in the golden age of drama and I could have named five other shows that could have been up for the Emmy this year. It's just the numbers.

In comedy, there are fewer comedies on the air and there are probably less comedies that are deserving. So it was a little easier. We may have left out one or two, but we certainly didn't leave out a dozen, like we probably did in drama. But you can only fit so many into five nominees. I think all of them are very deserving this year. I think we really got it right.

TVWeek:Has there been a change in the voting process from previous years?
Mr. Perris: Yes. It was tweaked this year from last year, and that was tweaked from the year before. There are "all-academy" votes for the shows. Then there are actors voting for actors, and makeup people voting for makeup people, so those are not all-academy votes. The all-academy votes are for shows only.

In 2005, that's the way it worked and it worked fine up till that time. A lot of critics said we seemed to be coming up with the same shows under the popular vote. So in 2006, we installed blue-ribbon panels, where hundreds and hundreds of volunteers come in and watch specific episodes of shows to see who should be nominated for the best shows. In 2006, those panels were given 100 percent control over the finalists. The whole academy voted for 12 finalists and then the blue-ribbon panels decided which of those 12 finalists submitted the best shows.

We had a little problem with that last year in the sense that it appeared a few shows got in that shouldn't have been in the top five. Therefore, this year we decided we would do a 50-50 split, where we would take the 10 finalists in each category and then the blue-ribbon panelists would vote, from 1 to 10, their favorites, and then we would put both halves together. That's how it worked this year, and I think it's worked very well.

TVWeek:With this being the final season of "The Sopranos," do you think it's likely the voters will be inclined to give it the dramatic series Emmy?
Mr. Perris: I can't predict; I have nothing to do with picking the winners. The five finalists now go back out with other episodes to a voting body that's a lot of people. It's not the entire academy; it's people who can now watch the episodes, and it's in the thousands. People will be able to watch those specific episodes and vote now that it's been whittled down to five finalists. So if you were a fan of a show that didn't make it to the five, you now get to re-vote among the five that are left. When we use the term "popular vote," please remember these are qualified members' popular vote. It's not just somebody who watches TV from his or her home in Phoenix. These are qualified members of the academy.

TVWeek:Looking back, are there any Emmy broadcasts that stand out in your memory as truly special?
Mr. Perris: Just to go back to last year, I thought getting the three original "Charlie's Angels" together as part of honoring Aaron Spelling was really great, because those people hadn't been together for a while. Also the salute to Dick Clark, who's an icon in TV, was kind of nice to see. Then there was the broadcast Ellen DeGeneres hosted after 9/11. She was great. And the show ended with Barbra Streisand singing "You'll Never Walk Alone." That was incredible. Here's the biggest problem with that: The Emmy broadcast can't win an Emmy. It's the one show that's not eligible to win. It's sad because many of the broadcasts are really terrific, and we manage to get 27 awards in and have entertainment value in it.

TVWeek:Is there ever a concern on your part that there are too many awards being given?
Mr. Perris: There's probably room for even more. Do we worry about it? No. It is what it is. There are a lot of deserving people in TV. The problem is trying to get it down to a workable group of nominees. The week before the Primetime Emmys, we have the Creative Arts Emmy show that is broadcast on E!. That's the Saturday before the Primetime Emmy broadcast. We give 70 awards out at that show, most of the behind-the-scenes people and a few guest actor categories. That's well attended, in the same auditorium, the Shrine.

TVWeek:Do you think this is a good era for television across the spectrum, network and cable?
Mr. Perris: The fact is that I'm looking over the list of nominees and we've got everything from AMC to Animal Planet to Discovery; the Emmys now encompass all of television. We, in fact, have opened up the Primetime Emmys, last year, to broadband. Not too many have submitted anything yet, but we're heading in that way. Cable has grown to where it has so many nominees now, and broadband will be there in the future, too. If you are on broadband now [you are] already eligible to enter the Primetime Emmys. This year we're going to spread the word more about that.

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