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Another View of TV Academy 'Tempest'

January 14, 2002|BRYCE ZABEL

While lacing up my shoes for a morning run, the phone rang and the voice on the other end said to turn on the TV--the bombing campaign in Afghanistan had begun. The four-miler wasn't the only thing that got canceled that day. It was Sunday, Oct. 7, and 30 phone calls later, the Emmys were off ... again. It was my first week on the job.

During the next month, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences weathered the greatest public relations crisis in its 53-year history. Our resolve to go on with the show ultimately generated tremendous goodwill toward the academy, and we put on a telecast that even the L.A. Times described as "No Errors, Lots of Hits" (Nov. 5, 2001, by Howard Rosenberg).

Now reading the same paper, the academy is described as "A New Tempest in the TV Set" (Jan. 8, by Brian Lowry). The charge, apparently, is that not picking up the contract option on our top executive staffer (not an officer, as reported) has some of our own board of governors unhappy and, therefore, serves as proof that the group is just too contentious to attract leading industry types to volunteer their time or pledge their support through membership.

This reminds me of what Russell Long, the senator son of Huey Long, had to say about democracy being "like a raft. You won't sink, but you'll always have your feet wet." Yes, democracy is messy, but consider the alternatives. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is a nonprofit organization, governed by a democratically elected board of governors from 27 different peer groups ranging from directors to stunt players to executives and virtually all facets of television.

It's not a vertically integrated mega-corporation where the top gun gets his or her way without dissent. This is a place where people are allowed to voice their opinions, and the process can get a little noisy from time to time.

That's why, by the way, the board of governors more than a decade ago empowered its own 15-member executive committee to pass judgment on staff contracts, which are often based on extremely sensitive evaluations of performance. It respects the privacy of the individual, and the difficulties of preventing leaks from the larger group. It sometimes means that people in my position get asked to comment about things they can't comment on, making them look like a plotting finalist on "Survivor," but that's part of the job description.

Although a few of our 54 governors wish they'd been more involved, the truth is that even the people being evaluated asked for their review before the smaller committee (of which 11 of the 15 members are either elected officers or governors), a procedure that has not only the legitimacy of our bylaws and past precedent but that was recently confirmed by an independent management consultant.

How many people reading this would actually want their own job performance debated before a group of more than 50 people, some of whom have demonstrated a propensity for talking to reporters about confidential information? Actually, most of us get through life being evaluated by committees of one--our bosses.

We spent our board meeting last week talking it out, more or less like the grown-ups we are. When it was done, we decided our decision not to renew the contract was final but tried to respect that minority opinion.

We'll let our bylaws committee check into it for the future, and get back to the full board at its next meeting to make possible process changes, letting governors make that final decision.

Oh, and while we were gathered in this Times-described "tumult," we also passed the 2002 operating budget, received the award for No. 2 nonfiction magazine in Writer's Digest's top 100 and changed some awards rules as an olive branch for our sister organization, the New York-based National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Not bad for gridlock.

As for the charge that the heavy hitters are fleeing the academy like network ratings when there's a new "Sopranos" episode, understand that the people involved in these decisions who serve on our executive committee include Tribune Entertainment President and Chief Executive Dick Askin; Sam Haskell, head of television for William Morris Worldwide; and Fox Broadcasting President Sandy Grushow, among many others.

As for our membership, maybe you've heard of David E. Kelley, Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Zucker, Jay Leno, Mike Post, Kelsey Grammer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matt Groening, James Burrows, Whoopi Goldberg, Norman Lear or Ken Burns. You don't have to belong to the academy to win an Emmy or even to attend the show, so these people must not have enough to do.

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