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Bryce Zabel: Agent of change

Jun 2, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Top executives of the four major broadcast networks are expected to attend a meeting with key officials at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences sometime this month in North Hollywood, Calif., to discuss the entire Emmy process and show, according to Bryce Zabel, who announced last week that he will step down later this year as academy chairman after one two-year term.

The meeting behind closed doors will be one in a series Mr. Zabel hopes to hold in the final four months of what he considers his “historic” term. “This has been the most dramatic period of change in academy history,” Mr. Zabel said . “I’ve had more jammed into one term than any other previous six terms. Some historic things have happened-from the 9/11 postponements to the licensing fee negotiation that resulted in a 250 percent increase to the negotiation to create a new Emmy theater to the internal changes we’ve made to make board meetings run more effectively to the outreach for new membership to the sense of empowerment we’ve been able to bring to the television community. It’s just been historic and sweeping.”

New Leadership

One big change was the decision not to renew Jim Chabin’s contract as paid president, which led to a long search for a new top administrator. The job was filled about seven months ago by Todd Leavitt, a former top business executive with NBC, Alliance TV Group and others, who will remain, regardless of who becomes chairman.

“I am not [supporting any candidate for chairman],” Mr. Leavitt said. “We are the civil service. We will support whomever the membership and board of governors choose.”

As Mr. Zabel plans his return to full-time writing and producing, including a project about postwar Iraq for HBO called Hearts and Minds, he remains fiercely proud of what was accomplished. “Politics is an element of running any organization and politics is always frustrating. That was not my favorite part of the job,” he said last week. “I have nothing but good thoughts because we have, in effect, accomplished exactly what I hoped we would. My No. 1 goal for the academy was to put it on a financial footing that would allow us to dream bigger dreams for the future. And that has been accomplished beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.”

Mr. Zabel is also a member of the Writer’s Guild, and shortly before taking office at the TV Academy he observed the writers’ negotiations with producers on a new contract. “The one thing I took away from that was respect for the other side and knowing the value of what you have. In other words, having the facts,” Mr. Zabel said.

That was the mind-set as he prepared for the negotiations for TV rights to the Emmys. They formed a committee and hired an expert who gave them detailed data on what commercial time sells for in the show. In the end, the networks made an eight-year deal worth $52 million (four years at $5.5 million and four years at $7.5 million). “For the first time the academy was able to plan for longer than a four-year period. That deal will transform the academy for decades to come,” Mr. Zabel said. “It is now possible to dream bigger dreams.”

One dream is to significantly increase academy membership. Mr. Leavitt would like to see it double to about 25,000 within a few years. “We have a long way to go and not just here,” he said. “You’re going to see more activities on the East Coast, in New York and down through Bethesda [home of the Discovery networks] and Atlanta [home of Turner Broadcasting] as well.”

ATAs, Not NATAS

There is the separate National Academy of Arts & Sciences based in New York, but Mr. Leavitt points out that that is more oriented toward sports, news and daytime programs. He said the prime-time producer s of shows like Law & Order belong in ATAS, not NATAS. And that has nothing to do with the ongoing conflicts between the two organizations.

The big conflict at the moment is over a NATAS plan for Latin Emmy Awards. Under their contract, both ATAS and NATAS must agree to create a new Emmy Award, and ATAS has been hesitant, citing the fact many Spanish-language shows are actually produced outside the United States. Frustrated, NATAS triggered a provision calling for arbitration on the matter. It is in the courts at present.

Both Mr. Zabel and Mr. Leavitt said they want more Latino members and are doing outreach to bring them in. They also have new programs to reach students and faculty. They have any number of other initiatives started, from better protecting the Emmy as a brand to finding ways to level the playing field between cable and broadcast TV members. There are also efforts to deal with discrimination and the very real issue of ageism.

It is part of an effort to make the academy more relevant and more involved with the community. In recent months, for the first time, the academy has spoken out on such issues as runaway production, on-screen credits and how many TV stations one company should own.

As he pursues these efforts, Mr. Zabel will not endorse Dick Askin of Tribune or any of the others who may run to succeed him as chairman. He said he wants to be apolitical so he can help transition whomever wins.

“I have tried to be a leader who was not focused on winning another election, but on doing the right thing,” said Mr. Zabel. “We’ve had an activist couple of years. I ran as an agent of change. And I have received strong, positive response from the vast majority of people I have encountered for that stance. People seem to feel that the academy has been put in a more positive light for doing the right thing.”