When he leaves his post as Chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences following a pair of 2-year terms at the helm, John Shaffner goes out on a high. The art director helped to forge a new 8-year Emmy telecast wheel deal with the 4 broadcast networks that brings a license fee of at least $8.25 million annually and $66 million over the course of the pact (an increase of $6 million over the previous). Shaffner spoke with Deadline TV contributor Ray Richmond about why it took nearly 9 months to get the agreement finalized, where the Emmys go from here, and why the Emmycast’s lukewarm ratings don’t trouble him:
DEADLINE: Congratulations on the new 8-year Emmycast deal. It only took about 9 months to negotiate. Why so long?
JOHN SHAFFNER: You know these things just take time to work through. When we began conversations last year, there were two new guys in there heading up entertainment at the broadcast networks: you had Paul Lee at ABC, and huge uncertainty at NBC with Comcast coming in. The business affairs people were all trying to answer for their bosses and ascertain what the goals should be. Plus, there was the fact we were trying to get this started at the beginning of the fall season with all of that anxiety. Now we’re 4 to 6 weeks out and things aren’t working and everybody’s reordering their schedules. Then you turn around and, bam, it’s Christmas. Then everybody’s busy reading pilot scripts.
DEADLINE: So you’re saying you couldn’t get everyone in the same room to focus on banging out a new Emmy contract even for a day or two?
SHAFFNER: No, we couldn’t. Assembling the leadership of the networks together just wasn’t happening. It’s not the way it was done 8 or 16 or 20 years ago. It’s a new age where no one has time to set a meeting. It’s all done on the Internet. So the process goes around the loop and around the loop and takes a very long time. Even once you get around to finalizing a document and closing escrow, it takes weeks to get everything in order.
DEADLINE: So how does anything ever get done?
SHAFFNER: It’s very difficult when you need everyone’s attention when there are so many things competing for their time. These are incredibly busy people we’re talking about. But it was never a case of our being far apart. From the first meeting, I knew we’d get to a pretty good place. The network guys are all really good people who love television and were tremendously supportive of the TV Academy and the work we do.
DEADLINE: We had heard that a sticking point in the contract negotiations was opposition to keeping the writer and director awards in the primetime telecast. Was that ever on the table?
SHAFFNER: The Hollywood Guilds have nothing to worry about. I personally would have been opposed to any sudden proclamation changing the way we honored members of the WGA and the DGA. There has to be consensus, and sometimes the most interesting thing in an Emmy program is the acceptance speech given by a winning writer. We’d hate to lose that. Maybe we could discuss the way we set up the category on the show rather than changing it out. However we do it, they will continue on the show.
DEADLINE: But I noticed that in the announcement of your new contract, there was a line that read, ‘For the subsequent 7 years of the agreement, the designated network broadcasting the Primetime Emmys and the Academy will give due consideration to reviewing the award categories and the manner of presentation of awards, taking into account the interests of various constituencies of the Academy.’ Doesn’t that basically say the telecast could undergo radical changes with each passing year?
SHAFFNER: What our agreement says, first off, is that we decided not to mess with it at all this first year. Let’s breathe. What that other line means is, we wanted to indicate in writing that there would be a continuing conversation annually about how to make the best telecast, without committing to having to do anything.
DEADLINE: But it says you’re also open to the possibility of a major overhaul.
SHAFFNER: Yes. But one of the great things about this institution is we have discussions to keep the lemmings from jumping off the cliff. There will be no rush to judgment. Do you know what the market research tells us? That one of the things the audience likes best is the ‘In Memoriam’ sequence. We figured that was the time everyone ran to the bathroom. But we were wrong. Everyone’s glued to the TV. That serves as a reminder that the meat and potatoes of the telecast is very important to people. It can all just be frosting.
DEADLINE: Were you ever worried the discussions would break off?
SHAFFNER: No, that was never the case. In the end, the networks all wanted to do what it took to get where we needed to be. Our broadcast partners were very respectful about stepping up to the table to come up with the necessary resources for the TV Academy. It took so long because everyone was concerned with not rushing into anything.
DEADLINE: Were there any suitors this time among the cable networks in addition to the broadcasters?
SHAFFNER: We have a commitment to go into sincere negotiations with our network partners and let that play out to completion before soliciting or engaging any other interested parties. I assumed there would have been interest elsewhere if we’d run it up the flagpole and waited to see who came to salute it. But that was never a factor.
DEADLINE: Is there fear that it would diminish the stature of the Emmys if they are telecast on a cable network?
SHAFFNER: There’s all this talk about the demise of the TV audience and how it’s all getting fractured into a million pieces. But the bigger pieces are still at the networks. And the potential for aggregating the largest audience still lies with the networks. They have a great promotional platform. And with their penchant for appointment TV, we have a chance to connect in a way you don’t have with most cable programming. For a live TV event, the broadcast networks are still the Olympics, still the Oscars, still the Grammys. They’re still where it’s at.
DEADLINE: But the Emmycast still has ratings issues even on the broadcast networks. How much does that concern you?
SHAFFNER: Either the Emmys air in late summer August when most people are still at the beach at 8 PM and the [Homes Using Television] levels are at their lowest levels of the year. Or they air on a Sunday night in September as is the case this year opposite a football game on NBC. So guess what? That time period is always going to be seriously challenged. Pro football isn’t going to shut down for the night because of the Emmys. We can’t do anything about the audience level. It is what it is. So our challenge is to worry less about the numbers and worry more about putting on a good show – and stop making ourselves crazy. I hope I don’t wind up having to eat my words.
DEADLINE: What can the TV Academy do to make the show less boring?
SHAFFNER: Our first priority is always to put on the best show we can. That’s why we were so thrilled to land Mark Burnett as our producer this time. He’s one of those at the forefront of creativity in the medium, and he has a million ideas this time. He’s excited about the opportunity.
DEADLINE: What do you see as your biggest challenge for the Emmys going forward?
SHAFFNER: As far as the telecast is concerned, it’s really to somehow engage viewers by those who are honored in an exciting way what their passion is and where it comes from. We need the winners to convey why they care about this work. As much as we respect the stream of ‘Thank You’s to individuals, we need them to give us some insight into their soul as well.
DEADLINE: My kids are in their early 20’s and have absolutely no interest in watching the Primetime Emmys.
SHAFFNER: That’s another challenge. But I would tell them that there is something that will engage them on the show if they’ll tune in and give it a chance. We’re determined to cross the line and be intergenerational and make the Emmys an involving experience for everyone.
DEADLINE: Do the Emmys need to change, even change radically, for that to happen?
SHAFFNER: I don’t think so. It isn’t that we have to keep doing things the same way we’ve always done it. But we should keep doing things that work the same way we’ve always done it. The thing I’m most fearful of is dropping in non-organic material just for the sake of change and having people ask, ‘Why is that here?’ You probably shouldn’t make room for something that changes the experience if it doesn’t make it better than what you’ve already got.