NATAS, ATAS nearly merged two years ago

Just two years ago, the two rival TV academies came close to resolving their differences and merging back into one organization.

Didn’t happen. Instead, the relationship between the two sides has once again turned nasty, with a lawsuit, calls for arbitration and a war of words threatening to undo several years of attempts by both sides to heal their 30-year rift.

“I would say the relationship between the two parties is terrible,” says Peter Price, CEO of the New York-based National Academy of TV Arts and Sciences. “In recent times we thought we were reforming it, if not building some bridges. Suddenly someone decides to bomb those bridges. It’s either merely hostile, or outright warfare.”

Dick Askin, the CEO of Los Angeles’ Academy of TV Arts and Sciences, is much more measured in his take.

“Although we’re right now going to mediation leading to arbitration, the relationship between the academies for the last several years has been pretty collegial,” Askin says. “I’ve had many productive conversations with my fellow chairman Dennis Swanson and more recently Herb Granath.”

Nonetheless, a few weeks ago NATAS and ATAS started looking less like post-Cold War Germany and more like the modern-day Korean peninsula.

It all came about after ATAS — which administers the Primetime Emmys — grew suspicious that NATAS — the org behind the Daytime, Sports and News Emmys — was looking to launch a full-fledged Broadband Emmy show without permission.

Such a move, ATAS said, would violate the terms of a 1977 agreement that split the TV academy up in the first place. ATAS was formed after the TV org’s Hollywood chapter, which had grown in power as TV’s entertainment base shifted west, felt marginalized by the academy’s New York brass.

The final straw came when the acad’s non-Hollywood members (including New York and chapters across the country) banded together and named former New York chapter prexy John Cannon as the new TV academy president.

The org’s Hollywood chapter sued, demanding — and eventually getting — a divorce. As part of the settlement, the newly formed ATAS took oversight of the Primetime Emmys and the local Los Angeles acad branch, while NATAS held on to the other divisions — including the non-L.A. local chapters.

Talk of a thaw finally started swirling around both sides after Cannon, who wasn’t interested in the notion of a reunification, died in 2001.

Both sides began discussing new ways to work together, such as a common website. Then things got more serious, as meetings were held in Santa Fe, N.M. Acad reps began to hammer out issues such as executive leadership, where the merged org’s homebase might be, and how the merged entity would administer awards.

Nothing ever came to fruition.

“We couldn’t even put a website together,” Price sighs. “Maybe I should have learned something then.”

The newfound relationship was short-lived, as the two sides fought over the establishment of a Latin Emmy show.

NATAS wanted to quickly launch a kudofest for Spanish-language programming; ATAS, noting that most shows on Univision and Telemundo were actually imported from abroad, took a wait-and-see approach.

NATAS demanded arbitration on the issue; the two sides eventually settled the spat, agreeing to revisit the issue later. (In the process, ATAS took control of the International TV Acad.)

By 2005, things had improved so much that talk of a merger again gained steam.

“I spent a year in Los Angeles going over organizational charts and financial books,” Price says. “We spent so much time trying to make a deal that my wife almost divorced me. The fact that we couldn’t effect a legal merger, God knows we tried.”

But once again, integrating the west coast’s peer groups with the east coast’s local acad chapters proved tougher than expected.

“You’re dealing with structure, you’re dealing with history, you’re dealing with cultural differences,” he adds.

It was during that most recent merger attempt that both sides began talking again about a Spanish-language Emmy show, as well as tackling the Broadband front.

But both sides came to the table from two different points of view: Just like the Latin Emmy brouhaha, ATAS wanted to take time to study how a Broadband Emmy kudofest might be launched, while NATAS wanted to rush things into reality.

The two acads had already started to test the new-media waters: ATAS gave out an interactive Emmy, while NATAS began handing out a handful of Broadband awards.

“What they’ve said to us, is if the two of us don’t put our brand in the Broadband space, we may be pre-empted by another organization,” Askin says. “My feeling is the Emmy brand is the predominant brand of excellence in television content. Once we agree on how to honor new digital programming, it will be the most important award in that space. It just takes some time to answer these fairly complex questions.”

But then NATAS announced plans to award up to 15 Broadband Emmys this year, and followed that up by striking a deal with MySpace to hand out awards.

That set off a red flag at ATAS, which believes NATAS didn’t get permission and was working around ATAS to establish a Broadband Emmy infrastructure before both sides had a chance to iron out a template.

Price disagrees, noting that the 1977 agreement only bans either group from starting new ceremonies. New categories are OK — something NATAS says it found out when it tried to stop ATAS from launching a commercial Emmy category.

“This is simply about them not wanting us to do anything new,” he says. “Why? I don’t know. Maybe the air is different on the Pacific coast.”

ATAS launched arbitration on the matter, but began to worry that NATAS was pushing ahead with Broadband Emmys anyway. Citing the MySpace deal as the final straw, ATAS filed suit in U.S. District Court, asking for an injunction preventing NATAS from moving forward with any Broadband Emmys.

NATAS argued that ATAS had been informed of the additional Broadband Emmy categories and was well aware of the MySpace deal. The New York org also contended that the disagreement belonged in arbitration, and the judge agreed. The two sides will now head back to the table.

“The court proceeding was reckless,” says a defiant Price. “What are the merits to denying Emmy awards to people? We spent six months in what I thought were good faith negotiations… I don’t know what changed their minds.”

ATAS insiders say NATAS is pushing for the new awards in order to increase its revenue stream. Whereas ATAS, which earns $7.5 million every year in license fees from the Primetime awards, is in strong financial shape, NATAS continues to tighten its belt.

Most recently, NATAS told Daytime Emmy nominees that each winning show will receive just one statuette — in other words, other producers on shows with multiple nominees will have to spring for the $350 Emmy themselves. (ATAS stepped in and said it will reimburse any of its members who win a Daytime Emmy but are asked to pay for it.)

The fireworks aren’t over yet. As both sides head back into talks, ATAS believes it’s clear that NATAS can’t resume its Broadband Emmys for the Daytime kudocast — at least until a decision is made in arbitration.

“The next step is to get into the arbitration process as quickly as possible and get that standstill so we can agree what the rules are,” Askin says. “I’m hoping within three or four months we’ll have a resolution that both sides are happy with.”

NATAS, however, says it’s “business as usual,” and that the daytime show’s Broadband Emmys are back on.

“I’m certainly not enjoining their Primetime Emmys in September, although maybe that’s an idea,” Price says. “There are all kinds of ways we could throw mud at them for what could be called inappropriate behavior. But we have better things to do than that and I think they do too.”

Both sides agree on at least one thing: Once a real possibility, a reunification of both academies isn’t on the horizon.

“I guess if you’re dealing with divorced people, you figure, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we tried to get back together for the sake of the children?” Price says. “It sounds great, but try it some time.”

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