Hidebound in tradition, TV academy makes small pivot toward TV's complicated present

Not so many years ago, someone proposed distributing information exclusively online at a board meeting of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences elected governors. Several members objected, saying it was wrong to assume everyone who might want to see the material had computer access.

My, how our little academy has grown up.

Netflix’s strong showing in this year’s Emmy nominations — including a best-drama series bid for “House of Cards,” the first digital-originated program to enter that prestigious company — won’t change the TV industry. But it does underscore, as Academy Chairman Bruce Rosenblum noted, how our understanding of “television” is evolving.

As the above anecdote illustrates, this isn’t just any organization embracing the digital universe. It’s one that has traditionally been hidebound and slow to embrace change, resistant to new blood and – much like its brethren at the movie academy – structurally designed to place hurdles between new members and higher tiers of its hierarchy.

Of course, the addition of a new player like Netflix, which is pursuing a model similar to premium cable, only exacerbates the already-existing rift between the broadcast networks, which televise the Emmycast, and the actual nominations. With “House of Cards” elbowing “Boardwalk Empire” out of the best-drama roster, we again have a situation where only one broadcast hour made the cut, and that was PBS’ period upstart “Downton Abbey.” Once again, the network televising the show, CBS, is essentially throwing a party to which it’s barely invited (although as more than one pundit has suggested, this might be “The Big Bang Theory’s” year on the comedy front).

Admittedly, we shouldn’t make too much of what’s essentially a charge being led by a single series (despite a few bones toward “Arrested Development,” another Netflix property). And the real proof of how viable high-quality digital series are will be whether Netflix and its other brethren can replicate the splash that “House of Cards” was consciously designed to deliver — or even have the appetite to keep throwing $100 million at these sort of enterprises.

Then again, a lot of the same folks who attend those academy board meetings grew up within the entertainment industry accustomed to having the trades land on their desks every morning. For the first time this year, they won’t be greeted by a hard copy of Variety tomorrow listing the nominations, either.

As anyone working in media has learned (often the hard way), things change. And while this year’s nominations are more evolutionary than revolutionary, they illustrate even an organization that has often seemed rooted in an old analog model is capable of changing along with them.

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