Barack Obama and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences may both be reaching the same conclusion this month: Change is a bitch.
Any hopes the White House had of true bipartisan reform of health care appear to be slipping away as entrenched interests dig in and turn what should be a robust debate about helping average Americans into a nasty screaming match designed to advance deep-rooted political agendas.
Likewise, CBS and the Academy found their well-intentioned effort to breathe new life into a dying awards show sabotaged by folks who saw an easy way to stir up the Us vs. Them mentality that’s dominated so much Hollywood thinking since the runup to the writers’ strike.
What can we learn from this sad little episode? And what happens now?
Some talking points:
The likelihood that the Emmys will move to cable, or a single broadcast network, just increased dramatically.
"The problem with the Emmys is that unlike other awards show, no network has ownership of it," said one industry wag.
Indeed, the show is currently a foster child, moving from net to net each year. That means it lacks a single powerful network advocate to fight for changes and stand up to interest groups inside ATAS.
Emmy producer Don Mischer said earlier this month that he was trying to "save the Emmys" as a major TV event. But the death of time-shifting doesn’t mean the show will now automatically end up on cable.
It’s possible one of the networks might decide to step up and make a bid to gain full, exclusive control of the Emmys — particularly if ATAS agreed to make the changes it wasn’t willing to make this year.
The four networks currently pay $7.5 million per year for the Emmys, according to Variety. Many industry insiders believe the Academy would be lucky to match that figure and could have to settle for less.
The perception that nobody wants the Emmys could convince one of the networks to roll the dice on the show. Even at a reduced rating, the Emmys still offers a decent platform in which to promote new fall shows.
Then there’s cable.
FX has expressed interest in the show before, and a group of cable networks could air a simulcast.
HBO would also seem to be a possibility, since the network’s coffers allow it to pony up big sums relatively easily. It could open up its signal to all cable subscribers and turn Emmy weekend into an HBO free preview event.
Some in the Academy would worry the show would become far too small-scale if that happened, however.
The Writers Strike may be over. But the battle for control of the public perception of Hollywood continues, as does the politicization of virtually everything.
Consider what happened the news broke last February that ATAS and CBS were considering a plan to give producers the flexibility to drop some awards from the Emmy telecast. Before anything could officially decided, the story leaked to Variety, complete with damning quotes from writers.
"The whole idea is absolutely preposterous," "John Adams" scribe Kirk Ellis told the trade, firing one of the opening salvos in the war on change. "Television is famously a writer’s medium. To deny writers their appropriate place at the table can only be interpreted as condescension at best, and at worst, a deliberate insult."
Suddenly, the Academy wasn’t trying to produce a better broadcast. It wanted to screw the scribes.
And so instead of dropping awards from the show altogether, ATAS and CBS decided to compromise and introduced the time-shifting notion. But it didn’t matter: All most people heard was "dropped". All they felt was "disrespected."
The TV Academy needs to take a course in crisis management, consensus building and communications.
Their intentions may have been honorable, but it’s hard to defend the way ATAS handled the plan to shake up the Emmys. Rather than sit down with the labor guilds in advance and try to figure out a plan of attack, news of the time-shifting was simply allowed to leak to the press, where other parties could shape how Hollywood’s rank-and-file saw it.
At an Emmy news conference at the TV Critics Assn. earlier this month, many critics seemed intrigued by how Mischer planned to present the time-shifted awards. That’s because they were shown a clip of how a cut-down would look.
But most writers, directors and actors never saw that clip. In the era of YouTube, would it have killed the Academy to find a way to post it online?
Shaffner also never mounted a serious attempt to use the media to sway members. Why didn’t he do Q&As with major media outlets?
TV Guide critic Matt Roush, who makes a living lavishing praise on quality scripted fares and is hardly known as a shill for the conglomerates, said he thought the time-shifting could made for "a potentially more enjoyable viewing experience.
This "was an interesting, possibly good solution to a time problem that was handled very clumsily by the Academy and the show’s producers," he said. "Maybe next time around, diplomacy will win out…. Ironic how much pre-judging was going on, given how vociferously writers and other artists decry those who do the same thing for what they do."
The Academy didn’t completely give up trying to sell its plan. It quietly posted a "fact sheet" about timeshifting on its website.
And the organization’s Twitter feed diligently tweeted anybody who spoke out against timeshifting, begging them to "get the facts."
But those facts continue to be in dispute.
The Academy’s website clearly states that drama writing had been scheduled to be time-shifted. But it’s understood that many Academy members who supported time-shifting believed that the resolution supporting the changes specifically banned timeshifting drama or comedy series awards of any kind.
In addition, some insiders were surprised to hear Mischer say he might edit winning speeches if they included too much thanking of agents. But some inside the Academy were under the impression that speeches would not be edited– only walk-ups, reaction shots, etc.
Something is wrong when even supporters of a change aren’t sure just what the changes will be.
The race for Emmy chief could get interesting.
ATAS chief executive officer John Shaffner faces re-election this fall, assuming he decides to run for another term. Will the embarrassing about-face make it more likely someone else within the Academy will challenge him? Or will it scare away potential rivals, none of whom want the headaches that come with leading such a deeply divided organization?
It will be interesting to see if a candidate emerges from one of the writing branches of the Academy.
Shaffner declined an interview request.
This was really about longform.
Sure, it was the Guilds and showrunners who screamed the loudest, and probably caused the Academy’s about-face. But in the end, many industry insiders believe it was members of the Academy’s longform peer groups that are most responsible for building the momentum that derailed the plan for change.
Longform insiders have been complaining loudly, and on the record, about the changes since the Academy before they were close to being finalized. But rather than try to defend their desire to keep longform categories on network TV, they skillfully turned the debate– with some help from the Academy– into a referendum on whether any writers or directors should be slighted at all.
"There are factions within the academy who simply don’t respect the will of the majority," one television industry observer familiar with the Emmy debate said. "Rather than have the fight about longform…they went for moral outrage."
Mischer still has a chance to be a hero.
There’s probably a part of the Emmy producer that would like to throw in the towel and just give up trying to make the show entertaining. With 28 awards to hand out in little more than two hours (after commercials), there simply isn’t going to be much time to showcase anything but the nominees.
But, Mischer he is a pro. And there are still plenty of ways he could liven up the show.
How about some skillfully executed cast reunions, of shows that viewers under 50 still worship ("My So-Called Life," perhaps?) And why not let viewers hand out a best new show award, since ATAS refuses to bring back the category? (I know, one more award… but at least this one viewers will care about.)
Full disclosure: I’ve previously written columns outlining changes I’d like to see made at the Emmys, including the elimination of longform award from the show. And I’ve directly discussed my writings with members of the Academy in various forums.