In Depth

At 60, Emmys Look Ahead and Back

ATAS Chair-CEO Promises Show Will Offer More Than Just ‘History of Television’

It will be a big year for the Primetime Emmy Awards, and not just because of the emergence of cable networks such as AMC and FX in the major categories. This will be a historic celebration, the 60th anniversary of the Emmys. In his first year as chairman-CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, John D. Shaffner has a big job ahead of him, but the Emmy Award-winning production designer is enthusiastic about the broadcast. He spoke with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman, sharing his insights about the awards and the ABC broadcast scheduled for Sept. 21 from the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles.

TelevisionWeek: What special plans are on tap for the 60th anniversary of the Emmys?

John D. Shaffner: The big 6-0. We don’t want this show to be about the history of television. Ken Ehrlich, the executive producer, now that we have the nominees, has his puzzle in front of him. He’s beginning to put the pieces together to see how he can weave in and out of it moments that can give us a glimpse back into our wonderful 60 years. A lot of the celebration is about those 60 years and today, so it will be an interesting quilt. It’s a recipe that’s going to involve a lot of really nice ingredients, but it isn’t going to scream “history of TV.”

TVWeek: How are you dealing with the prospect of a Screen Actors Guild strike?

Mr. Shaffner: We are concerned. We have to be blindly optimistic and move ahead with the planning for the telecast and for our celebration parties afterwards, because that’s our goal. People ask if we have a contingency plan. … I really believe that the actors, and to some extent the producers, realize that to not come to terms or to not continue to work without a contract but continue to work toward a solution is in the best interest of everybody.
To shut down our town now, after what we’ve been through, would be so hurtful for so many people. I have never been on a show where the cast hasn’t made friends and cared about the people who work on the show. We all know what this means for people to say, “No, we’re not coming to work.” It means everybody else is out of work, too. So I think it would be a very, very, very serious step if they were to go there, and I don’t think they’re quite ready to do it yet. But I’m only guessing and hoping.

TVWeek: Do you get a sense that the stars will still come even without this SAG issue settled?

Mr. Shaffner: Yes. One thing is that this is a good, busy time of the year. Hopefully this is going to be a great reunion of so many of the TV family that are nominated, and the networks and the studios have their shows and it’s a great time to celebrate and come together. I think that everyone likes to see everybody else. Television is, oddly, kind of a small town. Sooner or later it seems like everybody has worked for everybody.

TVWeek: How did you get to be chairman of ATAS?

Mr. Shaffner: I’ve been involved with the Academy for a very long time. My background is in theater design. I’ve always enjoyed the sense of community in a theatrical enterprise, and this is an extension of that. I’m both a macro and a micro person; I enjoy the details, but I love the big picture of what everybody’s contribution is and how it makes something that becomes so much a part of our culture.

TVWeek: The show won’t be in the round like last year, right?

Mr. Shaffner: We don’t want to be repetitious. We are being inspired by a new theatrical space, the Nokia Theater, which has just been opened. It’s very much a state-of-the-art facility. It seats around 6,500, the same as the Shrine Auditorium. It was built in the style of Radio City Music Hall, but the biggest difference is what it does not have: a proscenium. It’s a really big room that has a platform at one end, so it gives anybody that moves in here complete freedom in some respects to define their working space. The set in some ways becomes the architecture of the room. As designers have worked with the space, we’ve realized an unparalleled opportunity to make a statement.

TVWeek: How will it look?

Mr. Shaffner: We’re working with multiple screens and a lot of playback and lots of opportunities to show us from whence television came so we can honor the past and celebrate the present and imagine the future.

TVWeek: What about musical numbers?

Mr. Shaffner: Ken has a passionate interest in music, obviously—he produces the Grammys. There’s a lot of music and dance on television. When you reflect upon the Emmys in years past, there was always the special material that was created, the song-and-dance numbers. I think our whole business has moved away from that to some extent and toward a place of finding something that makes sense in the context, but maybe not custom-created. It depends a lot on the talent.

TVWeek: There’s a lot of music on shows like “Pushing Daisies” and “Eli Stone” …

Mr. Shaffner: Many people have lamented the oft-predicted demise of the American musical theater, but I subscribe to the theory that perhaps we have taught our youth—the next generation—to enjoy music as part of the storytelling experience because of their exposure to MTV, VH1, etc. That’s why I think we’re seeing a lot of this material with music; I mean, look at the success of “High School Musical.”

TVWeek: What are your impressions of the nominations?

Mr. Shaffner: I think we have a very interesting horse race, especially in the dramatic series category: the venerable and brilliant “Boston Legal,” yet we have these newcomers coming forward from the basic-cable channels, “Damages” and “Mad Men.” This is very interesting.

As television and storytelling continue to merge, I oftentimes wonder, where is the line that separates a feature film from a miniseries or a special or a TV movie?

Some of this stuff is amazing, and the resources that the basic-cable channels are putting into the development and production of this material really speak about how they’re playing with the big boys.

There’s some great writing, they have a long-term business plan, and by doing this they bring more viewers back to their channels because they’re being talked about. It’s a quality experience for the viewers, so they’re going to come back or stay tuned to something else on basic cable. I think the most fascinating thing with the business of TV right now is the range of roles and the quality of the writing.

I think one thing that’s been fun is to recognize that we really have stepped out of the boundaries in the diversity of age [among] actresses and actors. Everybody isn’t all the same age in every category.