We've Got Hollywood Covered

The Annals of the Interactive Emmy on its 10th Anniversary

Lost amid the old-school rituals of last Saturday’s Creative Arts Emmys was a tiny signpost of change, an Emmy for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media

Lost amid the old-school rituals of last Saturday’s Creative Arts Emmys — the first of the TV Academy’s two Emmy awards galas — was a tiny signpost of change, an Emmy for “Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media,” marking the 10th year since the primetime Emmys first recognized “interactivity” as a legitimate part of the television business.

The Emmy went to ABC’s “Oscar Digital Experience,” one of several nominees that leveraged social media and second-screen apps.

By itself, the award made barely a ripple inside the hall, overshadowed as it was by dozens of other awards.

Indeed, the entire Creative Arts Awards itself is the red-headed step-child of the main Emmy event this Sunday (Sept. 18), when the Emmys are handed out by and to name-brand actors and those who hire them. 

But in the real world of the media business, there’s a tsunami of disruption underway, which is why it’s so interesting to look back at a decade of interactivity. 

More than the merits of one production over another, and certainly more important than the messy, sausage-making of self-congratulatory industry awards, the story of the interactive Emmy illustrates the interplay between technology, content and platforms that has taken place inside an industry which is still quite schizophrenic about the forces that are disrupting its business models and career paths.

The Interactivists

The story begins in the late '90s with a band of interactive media true-believers — call them “interactivists”  — who seized upon the framework of the L.A.-based Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) as a way to gain legitimacy for interactive media and the people who were trying to make it. 

Some of these folks worked inside the TV business. Others wanted in. (I coined the phrase “interactivists” to describe them in this article that you can download here.)

By 2000, ATAS authorized the formation of the Interactive Media Peer Group (IMPG), one of 28 “peer groups” that comprise the organization’s byzantine and highly political governance structure. 

Two years later, HBO’s “Band of Brothers” website won the Academy’s first award for interactivity. Not a statuette, but recognition nonetheless. 

Ten years later, on Thursday August 25 to be exact, I was among the “Blue Ribbon Panel” that selected the 2011 Primetime Emmy winner(s) for Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Media that was presented Sept. 10. 

The nominees (envelope please):

>> ABC's Grey's Anatomy Sync; ABC.com, Nielsen, Gravity Mobile, Shondaland

>> Conan O'Brien Presents: Team Coco; TBS.com: Team Coco Digital

>> Fringe: Division; Fox.com: Warner Bros. Television, Bad Robot Productions

>> Late Night With Jimmy Fallon; NBC.com: Gavin Purcell, Producer; Sara Schaefer, Producer; Jimmy Fallon, Producer; Robert Angelo, Producer

>> Oscar Digital Experience; ABC.com: Disney ABC Television Group; Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

One or more among these five could have won the Emmy, due to a change in the rules governing the interactive award this year. (For a deep dive into the minutiae of eligibility and rules go here.)

Among this year’s nominees (five out of more than 50 submissions), three offered “second-screen apps,” that is, unique experiences delivered via mobile devices like the iPad and which enable users to talk to their friends as well as to the show.

In fact, all of the nominees emphasize social engagement (via the web, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube). Significantly, not a single finalist requires the use of a cable set-top box or a satellite dish. 

I was delighted to see the IMPG make the case for interactivity circa 2011 in this engaging video, which opened the tribute and reception for the nominees, which followed the voting on a steamy August night at the ATAS headquarters in North Hollywood.

As I watched, it struck me that IMPG’s history is a great lens through which to examine the baby steps of the interactive media world.

I know, because there was a unique symbiosis between the IMPG and the AFI Enhanced Television Workshop, which I launched in 1998, and its successor, the AFI Digital Content Lab (DCL), mostly because both involved many of the same people.

For years I called the AFI program “the why-bother workshop,” because in the beginning that’s what everyone said when I told them of my passion for interactive media.

Our program revolved around an incubation lab, fueled by hundreds of mentors, many of whom led (and still lead) the IMPG. From companies large and small, with diverse skills and histories, they volunteered for AFI production teams, and created more than 90 pioneering interactive applications, many of which were nominated for Emmys (and sometimes won).

AFI also provided a forum to showcase the best interactive work at its events each year, always featuring the interactive Emmy winners. For a few years, AFI even hosted the party for the IMPG nominees. Our staff was active on the IMPG awards committee.

A Decade of Interactivity

And so, it was fun thinking back over the decade, the great people, and the terrific work. (Note: The best list of IMPG Emmy Award winners is at the group’s Facebook page, thanks to Geoff Katz.  To find it, hit the “more…” link in the “company overview” section under the “info” tab). 

That first year (2002), HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers," produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, received the first Emmy, sort of.

A plaque was given during the Academy’s engineering awards for a web-based application created by Atlanta-based agency Beyond Z, headed by Karen Lennon who was a mentor in the AFI program. We all celebrated like hell.

The following year (2003) began the group’s back-and-forth struggle to try and define this new medium in the context of the industry, as well as its tiny role within the larger academy.

Is this an award for content or technology? Is it about the audience experience or the companies that make the work? Does the program have to be on TV? How do you define interactivity?

Heated arguments by members of the peer group as well as with the larger academy resulted in categories being junked and rethought year after year. 

As consultant/producer Brian Seth Hurst, who has served as ATAS Governor and IMPG co-chair, told me, “All Emmy categories must reflect changes in the industry — just think of the impact of ‘reality TV’ — but interactivity is the only category that has consistently been reevaluated every year.”

Thus, in 2003, the group chose to give two Emmys, one for content (to NASCAR for its interactive “in-car” application that allowed viewers to “drive” the car) and a second for a system or technology (to Cablevision for its “Interactive Optimum” digital cable service).

A year later (2004) all the winners were content focused, with awards earned by Showtime Interactive, DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, and ABC’s Celebrity Mole: Yucatan. (The year 2004 was a high-water mark for the AFI’s impact on the Emmys, as well. The Celebrity Mole application, built on a Microsoft platform, was created inside the AFI Enhanced TV Workshop and launched by the partners who comprised the AFI team. Both of the other 2004 winners were also active mentors in the AFI program.)

In 2005 the group went back to the split between technology (again to Cablevision for its iO service), and programming (to TVLand, for its “all access pass” application, created with Zetools). 

The year 2005 also marked the first year that actual statuettes were given to the interactive winners, a reflection of the growing stature of the peer group within the Academy. 

In 2006, the group veered to a more techie approach, with both Emmys going for platforms — ABC.com’s web-based streaming player and the TiVO service, which got a LOT of pushback from the actors, according to Hurst, who viewed TiVo as stealing their jobs.

Trouble in the Emmy-verse

Indeed, there was big trouble in the Emmy-verse, but it wasn’t from the actors. It was from New York.  

Years before, in 1977, the TV Academy had split itself into two, leaving a legacy of periodic spats and awkward rivalries between the NY-based National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) and the L.A.-based Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS). (Here’s ATAS’s version of the history. And here’s NATAS’s. Go here for a neutral overview of the Emmys, with links to both groups.)

Among other things, 1977 settlement had divided up the Emmys, with ATAS getting the primetime Emmy, while NATAS got news, sports and daytime.

However, both groups were free to offer recognition for achievements in engineering and technology. And thus, the rise of interactive TV became another venue for the ATAS-NATAS rivalry.

NATAS started handing out Emmys in 2002-2003 for “Outstanding Achievements In Advanced Media Technology” as part of its Technical/Engineering Development category under the leadership of influential consultant and commentator Shelly Palmer,   (also an AFI mentor).   

By the 2005-2006 award year, NATAS’s total in the category hit eleven Emmys. Moreover, NATAS announced plans to launch an entirely new slate of “broadband Emmys” in partnership with MySpace, and would include such categories as drama and comedy that had always been in ATAS’s jurisdiction.

ATAS took legal action against NATAS and prevailed. A 2007 ruling declared that both groups would be permitted to offer “broadband” Emmys, but must keep their categories within the split established in 1977. Neither would be allowed to give awards for a “platform.”

As a result, IMPG redefined its category once again, this time as “outstanding creative achievement in interactive television.” The 2007 awards were given for both a TV series (ABC Family’s “The Fallen”) and a service (Current TV). 

But this formulation wasn’t really working either, because the series category mixed apples and oranges. (How do you pick between Heroes Interactive and The Jericho Experience, alongside programs like DirecTV Interactive Sports and Big Brother?)

So, beginning in 2008, the interactive awards were given for either fiction (NBC’s "Heroes" Digital Experience) or nonfiction (Disney Channel’s Games Digital Media Event).

This structure remained unchanged for two more years, 2009 (fiction: ABC’s LOST/Dharma Initiative; nonfiction: NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon) and again in 2010 (fiction: StarWarsUncut.com; nonfiction: Jimmy Fallon again).

The winners during this period represent the triumph of audience engagement triggered by great TV — which is exactly how the mainstream TV biz loves to view interactive media. It is adjunct to the main action, not a disruption of the existing model. 

Already offering audiences innovative storytelling on the TV screen, winners like  The Fallen, Heroes, and Lost delivered alternate reality games, parallel story worlds, and immersive fan cultures, and prefigured what some are now calling “transmedia” storytelling."

But in 2010, the fiction award went all the way off the TV screen when the Emmy went to an inventive, crowd-sourced, made-for-broadband website that enabled fans to shoot and upload their own Star Wars scenes. 

StarWars: Uncut, was up against two popular TV series (Showtime’s "Dexter" and Fox’s "Glee") and had to overcome its lack of traditional “television” credentials — even among some IMPG voters who were evidently still reluctant to given an Emmy to a show that wasn’t “TV”. 

This resistance came despite an important ATAS-wide rule change in 2006 that had broadened Emmy eligibility in ALL categories, regardless of distribution platform. 

This change, a consequence of the ATAS/NATAS settlement, may be the most disruptive change for all of Emmyland going forward, because it provides the groundwork for the Academy to recognize actors, writers, directors, producers and the others whose work is deemed to be outstanding, even if distributed exclusively on non-TV digital platforms like mobile, broadband, and games. 

My guess is that it will take many years for non-television nominees to invade the major primetime categories. But nominations and wins have already come in the lesser categories, notably fanboy icon Joss Whedon, who won his only Emmy for Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog, but not for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or any of his other series. http://blastr.com/2009/09/dr-horrible-wins-first-em.php Also, web-only spots have been nominated (Old Spice) and won (Budweiser) after the eligibility broadened. 

It’s worth remembering that the primetime Emmy would not even consider cable television programming until the 1987-88 season, necessitating the creation of a parallel cable ACE Award.

Today, of course, the primetime Emmys are dominated by cable networks, especially HBO.And, “alternatives” to the Emmys such as the Webbys and the Streamys merely nip at Emmy’s stilettos. 

All of which makes the IMPG a canary in the coal-mine, an early warning system for the Academy and the TV industry as a whole — much-needed in an industry that has a long and noble history of running away from the future at the same time that it reaches out for the next big thing. 


Nick DeMartino consults with companies on their content and distribution strategies, deals and marketing initiatives. Previously he served as Senior Vice President, Media & Technology at the American Film Institute. Find him on Twitter @nickdemartino and on the web. For links related to this story, check out his Delicious account.