Guest Commentary: One academy president remembering another

Jul 9, 2001  •  Post A Comment

John Cannon, president of the New York-based National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, died June 22 at age 74. NATAS split off from the North Hollywood, Calif.-based Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1977.
A group of John Cannon’s friends, family and colleagues gathered last week for his funeral mass in Queens, N.Y. My counterpart and good friend at the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has left us after serving as its influential president for 25 years.
In sometimes stirring, sometimes humorous tributes, NATAS Chairman Stan Hubbard and Academy Counsel Michael Collier spoke to the crowd of 500 about John’s love of his wife and family, his church, and, of course, the National Academy, which few would disagree was his life.
John’s roots in radio and then television were in Illinois. Mine were in a small town in Kansas. I think we both marveled at and delighted in our Midwestern broadcast beginnings and the identical Academy posts we held on opposite coasts-that and the fact that we both shared a love for great books and great conversation.
To the strains of “Amazing Grace,” played by a lone bagpiper, my mind wandered to my last lunch with John just a few weeks ago.
Part tutor, part taskmaster but an always generous friend and raconteur, John and I would meet at his favorite New York restaurant, La Bernadin, where John would present to me a book he felt I should read. As a result, I have books on Bing Crosby, Joe DiMaggio, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito and others lining my bookshelves, all from John, and all with personal inscriptions about why I should read each one. With each book, he inspired me to learn more and be better at my chosen work.
I have two favorites. The first is “Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith” by Robert Slayton. The book chronicles the life of a Catholic New York political leader who celebrated the diverse and warring factions of the city’s politics. John regaled me with wonder-filled stories of Churchill, Mussolini, Stalin and even Hitler. But, I suspect, to this deeply committed president of the sometimes-fractious community of a television academy, it might have been Al Smith with whom he most identified.
My other favorite title, which he gave me at our last lunch together, is “April 1865-The Month that Saved America” by Jay Winik. John’s note reads, “Astonishing info. Great idea. Good Book! Warmest, John.” This book is a Civil War saga about how Lincoln’s stewardship of the war and his subsequent death in April 1865 made possible the America we all have such pride in today.
John was such a great speaker, with a sonorous broadcaster’s voice, that I always looked forward to our next lunch, anticipating that I’d hear about his past meetings with Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton or receive his wise thoughts about navigating the sometimes turbulent waters that flow between strong-hearted but often strong-headed members of organizations like the academy. I didn’t care; I loved hearing his read on almost anything. And after all, navigating strong personalities and building academies is what we both did for a living. It’s what John knew best and loved most.

He and his NATAS colleagues first witnessed the migration of much of our industry to Hollywood in the past 30 years, and it was they who championed the non-Los Angeles television professionals to the world.
He lifted the Daytime Emmy ceremony from being held-literally-on the covered ice-skating rink in Rockefeller Center to the incomparable Radio City across the street. The prime-time telecasts of those ceremonies have become so successful that on occasion they even beat their prime-time Emmy sibling in household ratings and key demos.
John’s legacy included helping to create separate Emmy Awards for news, sports, engineering and world international broadcasters. He forged alliances and new Emmy organizations in TV communities across the country, and NATAS now boasts 18 independent chapters.
And during his tenure he suffered the personal attacks that went with professional disagreements, but he wore the requisite thick skin that even Al Smith would have admired.
Few industry nonprofits have endured more inner hostility and acrimony than the TV academy. Tensions actually reached such levels that in 1976-77 a court-ordered breakup was necessary to separate the warring factions into two organizations.
A few veterans remembered what the fight was all about, but our younger members don’t and are always puzzled when they learn there isn’t one united academy as a result of of disagreements a quarter-century ago.
So today NATAS and New York are home to TV’s power centers of East Coast production, advertising and corporate headquarters. ATAS and Hollywood are home to the global leaders in content creation. And between these coasts are the frontline leaders who in 200-plus television markets serve their local communities with the news, weather, sports and other programming and involvement upon which our industry’s financial livelihood depends. It is where the magical combination of our content, distribution and financial savvy come together and provide all of us with our regular paychecks and careers we wouldn’t trade for any other.
John gave me more books than I could read in several years. But I’ve finished “Empire Statesman,” and I’m deep into “April 1865.”
It seems almost poetic that my last reading assignment from John was about our country being torn apart-not unlike the academy-by strong personalities and sincere disagreements and its provident reunification into the modern marvel of a diverse nation we are today.
In the book’s most revealing paragraph, the author writes:
“The nation. For all the changes, the nation was now a powerful, compelling, enthralling idea, a symbol of a sturdy country, an embodiment of an enduring people, an arena for the peaceful resolution of differences, the stitch in fabric that even the founders missed. Political tastes would come and go; political fashions and experiences would change; affairs of state would shift this way or that; and over the years and the ages, arguments would be feverishly waged about political candidates, about political policies, about political parties, and just
as certainly, about government itself. But on one fact, and one fact alone, would there continue to be unity: The idea of the nation.”
Substitute the word “academy” for the word “nation,” and we may find in this passage the basis for healing old disagreements between NATAS and ATAS and charting a prosperous new future for America’s television family.
So what will my future be without John? Unless I can find a raconteur who can quote from this week’s New Yorker, two books from The New York Times’ bestseller list or any good movie showing right now, it will be substantially empty for a while. But I still have those unread books and my memories of my friend. “Astonishing info. Great ideas.” John Cannon was one great book.