79 F
San Fernando
Friday, Feb 23, 2024

Envelope, Please

Best known for giving out the Emmy Awards every late summer, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is more about honoring the best work and performances in television. For John Shaffner, the Academy’s chief executive and chairman, the organization is a vital way to bring together all the varied disciplines into a single community of professionals. Now in his second term as the volunteer head of the North Hollywood-based Academy, Shaffner said the position takes a lot of time and emotional energy but that he is achieving what he wanted to do since his first election in 2008. During his tenure Shaffner oversaw the move of the Emmy Awards to the Nokia Theatre, the proposal of using pre-taped Emmy presentations, an “idea that came too early,” the addition of new peer groups for Academy membership and use of live streaming camera backstage at the Emmys “The audience feels like they are there more,” Shaffner said. A native of Montana, Shaffner began his career in the theater in New York City with his partner Joe Stewart. Before getting too settled in the pair moved out to Los Angeles where they’ve used their design talents for live events (“American Music Awards,” “Miss Universe,” and the upcoming “Toy Story 3 on Ice”) and television shows (“Friends,” “Two and a Half Men,” and “The Big Bang Theory.”) A couple of bits of trivia about Shaffner: the apartment he designed for the sitcom “Friends” was based on one where he lived in New York City; and he came up with the name “Star Search” for the 1980s talent show when the original title “Talent Challenge” was too cumbersome to design graphics for. Question: What is your role and responsibilities as chairman and CEO of the Academy? Answer: The chairman and chief executive officer position is a volunteer position. You are elected by the board of governors, which is composed of two governors representing each of the 27 peer groups. It’s two fold. It’s to provide leadership to the group in terms of helping people communicate with each other and understand what we are doing here and what the big picture is; and to express ultimately in a vocal way, in a bully pulpit way an optimism about our business and our work. People who work in the television business work very hard and are some of the most wonderful and talented people in the world and yet many of them go unnoticed. Q: Are you accomplishing what you set out to do? A: Everybody’s term has a different kind of responsibility that is thrust upon them. When my predecessor Dick Askin came aboard he had the responsibility to bring stability to the organization. We had some unsettledness within the organization; it was tending to pull itself apart a little bit. He brought stability, he brought a great sense of financial responsibility and really left me an organization that was solid and operating in an efficient and proper and business-like manner. What I’ve tried to do in my term is to connect our organization more fully with the community of the people who make television. It is odd that over the years there became this sense of this Academy out in North Hollywood made up of those Academy people. I’ve made it my number one agenda to remind everybody that the Academy people are everybody we see every day on all the stages that make television in Hollywood and all over the United States. We are a community of people who are dedicated to making programming and delivery that programming to the audience. Q: How does the Academy stay relevant to its membership? A: The Academy stays relevant to its membership in multiple ways. We do our work on behalf of our membership and not everybody has time to do everything but would like to help things along in our society. So we take over the responsibility with the good deed work, particularly with our foundation and our educational programs, with our internship program, which is the finest program in the country for people entering into the television business. In order to be relevant we like to be a forum and a crossroads for people to come together. We do this through events, professional development events. We have activities that are very much entertaining where we bring on the cast of a show. Not so long ago we had most the cast of “Glee” here and the creators of the show and they talked about what it was like to make “Glee” every week. We make that available to our membership on the Internet as well. Last but not least we give out the Emmy Awards. That is the big name in our business. The membership is responsible because once you are a full member you participate in that contest by being a voter. Q: Speaking of the Emmys, how do you make the show so that it just isn’t another awards show? A: The Emmy Awards, like all awards shows, has struggled to define themselves in the last five years in particular about what is their content, what is their meaning. I think the Motion Picture Academy and we have a similar challenge in what is our content. The history had always been that special material, song and dance and let me entertain you and give out an award, and let me entertain you some more with original material doesn’t quite satisfy an audience anymore. Our goal has been to tweak the Emmys around a bit and make it a celebration of the last year of television and chance to review the great stuff. Whether it is nominated show or not we still pause and examine the genres. It is more of a sense of not only the television community coming together but our audience joining us in this celebration. I think it was successful last year and we will continue with a similar format. Q: How involved were you with moving the awards show to the Nokia Theatre in downtown? A: I was involved with the choice to move to the Nokia Theatre from the very beginning when I served on the board. As a professional, I‘ve worked in all the theaters throughout Los Angeles where you do these programs and honest to goodness it was time for a new venue to be made available to us. The Kodak Theater is just too small. The Shrine Auditorium is a landmark and an exquisite building but some of the services adjacent to it don’t fulfill all the needs. When the Nokia Theatre and L.A. Live was being thought of and created they came to us at the very beginning and said what would be good, what should be put in this theater. We had some conversations with them early and they really built a very comfortable big (theater). It’s just a hair bigger than the Shrine, I believe. But it’s commodious in terms of its backstage space, dressing rooms and all the support that’s around there. Q: How does the Academy see itself fitting in with the overall NoHo Arts District neighborhood? A: We had looked for a long time and money had been saved and various generous friends of the Academy had given money in hopes that we would have a permanent home. When we had enough funds together there was a big search in the 80s for where would be a great place to put the Academy. I have to say there were many people who felt it should be in old Hollywood. But I think it was ultimately farsighted of our forefathers to make the choice to settle out here on the corner of Magnolia and Lankershim. I think they had the faith in this area that it would grow with us and we could become our own entity here and not become a secondary entity, we might have been swallowed up if we had opened our offices in Beverly Hills. Q: How does the Academy engage with the broader business community? A: That’s a hard question. We are engaged as an organization with the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission. What we do is so unique that we are not a business that fits into the neighborhood in terms of not every passerby can walk in the doors because there is nothing here for them to do. However we have taken our responsibility seriously in terms of our presence here with our Hall of Fame plaza and the busts of all the wonderful people who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. We have an incredible courtyard that the public is always invited to visit. It is such a joyous trip down memory lane. I’m always entertained when I come to the campus. Tourists, they don’t know we are here and they stumble upon us. They are walking by and they come in and lo and behold there is a statue of Lucille Ball and people just love to have their picture taken next to Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett. Now we have Betty White and Bea Arthur. In a way our statue garden has become a great destination for people. How we interact with the business community a lot of times when we look for vendors or stuff we look around in this neighborhood. Q: What are the big issues facing the television industry? A: In my observation the challenges facing the television industry today has a lot to do with the break up of what we used to think of as a monolithic audience that was tuned to three major networks and a few independents. Now we find that it is so fractionalized that trying to find enough revenue from that niche audience your program is getting to produce the programming they want to watch is a challenge. We still have the blockbuster kind of television shows but then again you have incredible product being made that only has five hundred or eight hundred thousand people watching it instead of 12 to 20 million people watching it. You have to figure all the ways you can bring revenue in to support production of the programming. That is the business challenge. We look at international distribution; we look at ancillary opportunities to air programs that we make. In cable in particular you run a show a lot of times because you have to build enough audience there. The thing that people are concerned about is where is the revenue coming from. Revenue is still coming primarily from the advertiser. The American audience in particular is very trained to get these things for free. John Shaffner Title: Production Designer Age: 57 Education: MFA Carnegie Mellon University BFA University of Montana, also attended Macalester College Most Admired Person: Eleanor Roosevelt Career Turning Point: Star Search, hit Series as Production Designer opened doors to David Copperfield, “Friends,” etc. Personal: significant other/partner 35 years, Joe Stewart, also design/business Partner

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Featured Articles

Related Articles