Askin tunes in big picture

Chairman wants to restore prestige to awards show

Six months into his term as chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Dick Askin has already helped mend a 30-year feud between the organization and New York-based National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Yet his biggest challenge may be ahead, presiding over his first Prime Time Emmy Awards.

As the ballots go in the mail soon, Emmy season is under way. And Askin, a lifelong programming executive, has his own ideas about television’s biggest night.

Calling last year’s Emmy Awards an experiment that really didn’t work, Askin wants to bring prestige back to the Television Acad and restore the Emmy to its rightful place — a premier event that showcases television excellence to the world.

“(Exec producer) Don Mischner and I spoke pretty candidly about last year’s show and I expressed my disappointment that the comedians and actors doing monologues didn’t work and he agreed,” Askin says.

“While it’s OK to have some good-natured fun with television, I don’t think the Emmys should be more focused on entertainment and getting laughs than honoring the winners. I want to bring back a classy show that really raises the Emmy to the stature it deserves.”

While the specifics will be hashed out among the board of governors, the awards committee and execs at ABC (home of the September kudocast), Askin clearly wants to raise the bar on this year’s ceremony. For him, it’s a matter of finding the right host who can set the tone and hopefully the comedy will be organic. But it’s all a gamble and he doesn’t fault any of the past attempts.

“Television is about managing failure. Not all shows work and that’s just a fact of life,” says Askin.

He should know, since 1996 Askin has served as president-CEO of Tribune Entertainment Co., where he oversees the development, production and distribution of TV programming at Tribune Entertainment as well as Tribune Studios, the first all-digital studio lot in the U.S.

“There are no rules,” he continues. “You need a little vision, a little luck and you’ll succeed, but it isn’t getting any easier. Still I find it stimulating to come to work every day and try to figure out what the business is going to be like a year or two down the road in this environment that changes so rapidly.”

Chairing the Television Academy is no easy job, but Askin will rely on the same management philosophy he uses in his day job, delegating authority to the members of the staff who can best handle them.

“My responsibility is to provide the strategic vision and let all of the talented staff at the Television Academy do their jobs,” he says.

His long history with the TV Acad gives him an insider’s perspective and he’s built up many contacts and a deep knowledge of the org. He joined ATAS in 1987 and served on the executive committee before becoming a governor and then first vice chair.

“Dick understands how the Academy works so he’s been able to hit the ground running,” says Karen Miller, first vice chair and a longtime program executive. Miller is exec veep of programming and marketing for Reality Central, a cable startup to launch later this year.

“Television executives are a tough lot but he brings an elegance to the position and a global perspective,” she says. “He’s not a micromanager but he’s inclusive and engages everyone in the process.”

Touting the relevance of the Television Academy to members and the entertainment community at large is one of Askin’s major goals. In that effort, years ago he created the runaway production committee to address the costs of projects moving to other countries. His belief that tax incentives would encourage more local production seems to be gaining support in Sacramento and Washington.

“The Television Academy has to be tuned in to what’s going on in the industry and to bring the leaders shaping television today in our tent,” he says. “We also need to make sure that we are serving the diversity in our membership.”

Tom Sarnoff, chairman of the ATAS Foundation and owner of Sarnoff Entertainment Corp., has served in many capacities since the Television Academy’s inception in 1952. He was one of the last chairmen of NATAS before tension arose between the New York and Los Angeles factions and there was a split and ATAS was formed as a separate organization. Today, NATAS is a chapter-based entity made up of 19 chapters with headquarters in New York, and it produces the daytime Emmy Awards. ATAS, of course represents the 27 peer groups and produces the prime time Emmy Awards.

Askin’s most significant achievement, Sarnoff says, is re-opening communications with NATAS and striking a deal that will allow the orgs to bury the hatchet and move forward. “He was able to bring a rapport between NATAS and ATAS, which is something we’ve been trying to do for 30 odd years and he’s gone a long way to reconcile some of the differences,” Sarnoff says.

He likes how Askin runs his board meetings, even as they remain plagued with hotly debated issues that are rarely resolved. With 28 awards already being given out, the proliferation of Emmys is a sore point.

“We don’t want to dilute the importance of the Emmy Awards, and we need to protect the Emmy brand and give it as much cachet as we can,” Askin says. “Everyone talks about the golden age of television but right now there are shows like ‘The Shield,’ ’24,’ ‘Frasier,’ ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Survivor’ that are as good as any shows that have ever been on the air.”

Askin remains passionate about the medium and all forms of storytelling and is coming into office at a time when reality shows have moved into primetime’s mainstream.

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