Production designer takes helm of Emmy org

Production designer John Shaffner took office as the chairman and chief executive officer of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences on Jan. 1, and he’s the first to admit the job’s challenges. “I’m still growing into it,” he allows.

But that doesn’t mean he lacks a solid vision of what he intends to accomplish during his tenure. Chief among his goals is advancing the perspective “that we’re all creative,” by which he means not just actors, writers and directors, but also all the below-the-line types Shaffner shares common cause with. Indeed, he even broadens the definition of creativity to embrace TV execs, which is not an opinion often voiced by those with his background.

But then inclusion seems part of Shaffner’s fiber. He speaks passionately of what, beyond the primetime Emmys, his org can accomplish. (Shaffner’s Acad should not to be confused with the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, based in New York, which lays claim to the daytime and news Emmys.)

Shaffner puts great stock in his org’s year-round programming, which includes roundtables and retrospectives at its impressive North Hollywood headquarters. “I want to encourage the idea that the Television Academy can be a place that recognizes the quality of TV through our Hall of Fame and other programming,” he says. “I want us to be a part of what it is we in television are doing.”

Surely, then, it doesn’t hurt that Shaffner, himself a four-time Emmy winner, is still very much involved in TV. With his partner Joe Stewart, Shaffner has an impressive list of TV credits, including NBC’s “Friends,” a dozen David Copperfield’s specials, “Star Search” and work on daytime’s “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” And Stewart and Shaffner are currently working on “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory.”

“In a land of no sitcoms, I’m very lucky,” Shaffner says. “Besides, since we have no intellectual property rights, I have to keep working.” (His Acad job is non-paying.)

He also has to keep up with changes in his field, thanks to advances in digital technology.

“Production values on TV are so high – the level of detail, finish and design – it just keeps getting better and more, better and more,” he says. “So there’s that constant pressure.”

And there are no shortcuts with HD. “The camera sees everything,” Shaffner says. “The depth of field is so great, you can see the brushstrokes in the paint. There was a time when we got away with stuff because the picture was reduced. And that was the difference between television and film: in movies it was always two stories high, and with the TV, it used to be just a small box.”

Now, contrary to Norma Desmond’s famous words, the pictures are getting bigger, and thus so are the challenges for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, its members and its chairman.

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