A new day may be coming for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences if Warner Bros Television Group president Bruce Rosenblum has his way. The high-powered exec — who also holds the title of Office of the President, Warner Bros Entertainment (along with Jeff Robinov and Kevin Tsujihara) — has essentially been recruited to run for chairman of ATAS in the upcoming November election to replace current chair John Shaffner, an Emmy-winning art director who ironically works for WBTV on several Chuck Lorre-produced sitcoms. Rosenblum will be opposed by at least one other candidate, Nancy Bradley Wiard, a veteran ATAS officer currently in her second term as first vice chair who confirmed to me in an exclusive interview today that she’s definitely in the race to stay, although she added, ”I guess I am going to have to get a publicist now.”
Rosenblum’s entry is a significant development both inside and outside the Academy because the position hasn’t had a big name since former Walt Disney Studios president Rich Frank served, first for a couple of years in the mid-1980s and later in a four-year term in the mid-90s. Since then, there has been criticism that ATAS has not had a true industry heavyweight to lead it through the ever-changing landscape of the business. “I think it’s great,” one veteran TV exec and longtime Academy member who once worked with Rosenblum told me today. “He’s an important guy, and it hasn’t been an important position for several years. If he gets it, it will instantly be an important position again. He employs a lot of the industry, and I think Bruce would bring dignity back to the Academy along with innovation and evolution.”
On the other hand, one board member who will be voting in the election expressed a little wariness today over Rosenblum’s entrance into the race: “To put an executive of this level, it could be a huge conflict. Everyone in that room could potentially work for him. Who’s gonna get in a big fight with him? Also, he has nothing to gain. Why would he want to do this with all the various headaches, personalities and convoluted structure he will have to take on? Who is dumb enough to step in to this pile of s***?”
Another board member welcomed the idea: “To get us through the transition that we need to make is gonna take someone of that stature and acumen to do that. I see this as a good development, a necessary one. It’s probably time for someone who hasn’t been an insider on the board to give this a fresh spin.”
Wiard, who actually once served on the executive committee with Rosenblum, touts her years of service and insider knowledge as a plus. She also says she realizes the importance of having major industry names appointed to the committee (she says she already has two of those commitments should she win) — just not running the whole show. Before Rosenblum jumped in the race, she says she was actually considering asking him to serve on the executive committee again. “We do need people with power that are willing to help the organization, to be able to put on another Super Highway Summit, to do those types of things,” she said. “I can’t reach out into that world, I don’t know that world well enough. It’s why our Foundation works; the big players are willing to serve, but I do not believe you need a president of a corporation to run the room. I do believe we are better off having one of our own.”
For his part, Rosenblum says he made the decision a couple of weeks ago and seems raring to go. “A couple of people came and approached me and asked if I would consider it,” he told me when we spoke earlier today. “Having been in this business for a very long time, I really sense that we’re at a crossroads. As I talked to some people and thought more about it, I felt this passion for volunteering (the chair’s job doesn’t pay) and seeing if I could help the Academy and become a bit more visible, more relevant as the TV landscape shifts. The three words that keep coming to me are relevance, visibility and influence. Part of the challenge is perception. I’m not aware of anybody in that organization who wakes up thinking, ‘How is the academy perceived in the business and what can we do to improve that perception?’ ”
He adds that he is aware of all the politics involved in navigating the board and the executive committee on which he served a few years ago under former chair Dick Askin. There are many diverse voices on the board from all walks of the industry (full disclosure: I was on the ATAS board from 2006-10 representing the writers branch and have seen the challenges up close to say the least), but Rosenblum isn’t worried. “I’ve dealt with politics in philanthropic organizations in both work and non-work environments, and I believe the good work of the Academy can overcome that,” he said.
Rosenblum says he’s used to political minefields at Warner Bros (Charlie Sheen, anyone?), where they produce over 50 series across several networks and are launching 11 new shows this year. He’s also familiar with touchy union and talent issues that forced a near-boycott of the Emmys in 2009, when the Academy and their broadcast network CBS decided to streamline the show and time-compress writing and directing categories among others (an effort that flatlined when most major showrunners balked at the idea). “Minefields are obviously not something new to me, and I’m comfortable that I will be able to manage through the internal politics of the Academy but also help them deal with some of those political challenges outside, deal with the broadcast network partners who are vitally important to the mission of the Academy because as you well know a meaningful part of the revenue is the license fee that’s paid by the broadcast networks. That revenue not only supports the Academy but it also supports the foundation, and don’t lose sight of the wonderful philanthropic work the foundation does,” he said.
The election, held in November, will be in the hands of the 28 peer groups, each with two governors, along with exec committee members. It is sort of like the College of Cardinals selecting a new Pope, and the room is heavily weighted with below-the-line crafts people. How does an outsider get through to this very exclusive and diverse group of voters? Rosenblum says that over the next three months he plans to meet each of them that he hasn’t already met and plead his case. Unlike Wiard, who has served in key elected positions at ATAS for more than a dozen years (she was an officer even during Rich Frank’s tenure), Rosenblum isn’t worried about not being part of the club and thinks it is time for some fresh blood. “Somebody characterized to me that (the chairman’s job) shouldn’t be a lifetime achievement award, and someone also said it should be somebody in that role who can call the heads of the networks and get their phone calls returned,” he said. “There are a lot of really strong people there, but the organization over the last handful of years has lost some of that relevance. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity. I didn’t come into this on my own. A handful of people came and asked me. I mean, this wasn’t on my list of things to do.”
He added that he did inform Shaffner of his plans. “As you know John works here at Warner Bros and I see him a lot on soundstages and we’ve known each other a long time, and he just wanted to make sure I understood the role and how much work was involved and if I was prepared to handle it with that level of commitment,” Rosenblum says. “I let him know I absolutely wanted to take on the challenge.”
It’s also widely known that as part of the Warner Bros triumvirate in the Office of the President that Rosenblum is one of those three potentially in line to take over Barry Meyer’s job when he departs in 2013. Was going for this high-profile new gig part of a grander master plan to impress decision-makers at the studio? “That’s not any motivation at all,” he said, laughing. “That would be a kind of odd choice to take on so much extra-curricular responsibilities if the motivation was anything other than volunteering to help this worthwhile organization. Doing this would be a very odd choice.”
Wiard plans to emphasize her own strong attributes including her many years chairing the awards committee. She says she was the motivating force this year in combining the Movie and Mini-series Program category. “(Rosenblum) is going the exact places I already knew I was gonna do,” she said. “I’m not hearing anything new and original. My husband and I have both made careers out of this industry. I am there to give back. I care. I can manage the room because I know the room. It doesn’t frighten me that we need to make changes, but no organization makes changes quickly.”
Change — how much and how fast — could be a major topic for this campaign, and Rosenblum touts his readiness for the task. “We deal with all those issues daily at Warner Bros. We talk to the heads of Netflix, the heads of Hulu, the heads of Google, but there’s not enough access to those kinds of people on the (ATAS) board, and that’s what I think we need to bring. It’s a different level of access to information and experience,” he said.