No rerun for ATAS’ Zabel

TV Acad's topper ends tumultuous tenure

This article was updated at 8:36 p.m.

Academy of Television Arts & Sciences chairman-CEO Bryce Zabel has decided not to stand for re-election.

“I’ve done my duty, and I’m ready to move on,” Zabel said in an interview with Daily Variety. “I feel like I’ve had two terms jammed into one.”

Zabel took over as head of the Academy in fall 2001, just as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 forced ATAS and CBS to radically alter their Emmycast plans. Show was postponed twice before finally airing in November.

Since then, Zabel has presided over a two-year frame he believes has boasted “more profound change than in any other time in Academy history.”

Most significantly, Zabel worked with powerhouse attorney Ken Ziffren and ATAS prexy Todd Leavitt to hammer out a new license fee deal for the Emmycast that will see the fee ultimately increase 250%. ATAS has also worked out a deal with Anschutz Entertainment Group that calls for a new Emmy Theater to be built by 2006.

Zabel said that in addition to accomplishing all he wanted to at ATAS, he also needed to spend more time on his writing career and his family.

“I ran as an agent of change and great change has happened,” he said. “It now feels right… to step down. It’s been an enormously positive and rewarding experience, but I want to reclaim my life.”

The announcement by Zabel — a scribe by trade, whose credits include “Dark Skies” and the TV version of “The Crow” — comes one week after Tribune Entertainment prexy Dick Askin informed the TV Academy’s governors that he intended to run for the chairman post.

Askin currently serves as the TV Academy’s first vice chair. Several other candidates may emerge in the coming weeks now that Zabel has decided to leave after one term.

Elections will be held in August, with a new chair taking over in October.

‘A matter of priorities’

Zabel contended that his choice wasn’t influenced by Askin’s intentions but instead called the decision “a matter of priorities.”

“I stepped up to help out the community and will now stand down give my time to my family and writing career,” he said. “By stepping aside now, I can let other candidates emerge.”

Coincidentally, Zabel revealed his decision exactly two years to the day since he first sent a letter to the org’s governors, announcing his intention to run for chairman-CEO.

Zabel later emerged victorious following a tough race against UCLA professor Jeff Cole, who had been the handpicked successor of outgoing Acad chair-CEO Meryl Marshall. That face-off grew rancorous after some org members questioned Cole’s eligibility as a candidate and whether he had exaggerated his resume.

Zabel’s election made him the first writer to lead the TV Academy since Rod Serling did it four decades ago.

Emmy coin a priority

As a candidate, Zabel ran on a platform that made it a top priority to secure a big increase in the license fee the Academy fetched for the Emmy telecast.

The nets had traditionally paid far less for the Emmys than they did for rights to the Academy Awards and Grammys — a major bone of contention for most org members.

“The first, second and third priority was the license fee negotiation,” Zabel said. “We needed to get more money, which would transform the organization.”

Although tempted by a megabucks bid from HBO, the Academy’s board of governors last November accepted a $52 million deal that will keep the Emmy kudocast on the four major nets through 2010.

Healthy bump

The eventual deal repped a healthy bump over the nets’ initial $3.3 million-a-year bid and the $3 million license fee the Big 4 had paid over the past four years.

“That license fee will go down as the most historic transformative event in Academy history bar none,” Zabel said. “It happened by design.”

The org will start to see some of that money beginning with this year’s Fox telecast.

“When I ran two years ago, I talked about dreaming bigger dreams,” he said. “The next two years are about figuring out those dreams. I’m sure the organization will be very successful at doing that, whoever wins the election.”

9/11’s shadow

But Zabel’s term will probably also be remembered for the Emmys that almost weren’t, in the wake of 9/11.

Even before officially taking over the position, Zabel was thrust into the spotlight when the terrorist attacks forced the Academy to postpone the 2001 Emmy Awards.

After some hand-wringing over whether the show should go on, the org rescheduled the kudocast — only to be forced to postpone it again, after military action began in Afghanistan.

When the show finally went off in its third try, the Academy and that year’s broadcast partner, CBS, received high marks for helping shepherd an Emmycast (hosted by Ellen DeGeneres) that fit perfectly with the mood of the nation.

Chabin controversy

Zabel’s two-year stint as chairman-CEO also came with some controversy — particularly with the departure of former president Jim Chabin.

ATAS’ executive committee, led by Zabel, voted not to renew Chabin’s contract at a December 2001 meeting. Some board members expressed concern over how Chabin was let go and how Acad members were informed (in many cases, by the press).

Chabin’s departure was the culmination of an internal difference of opinion over how ATAS should be managed, including the level of involvement from the org’s hired staff and elected leaders.

After a search, the org hired Todd Leavitt to take over as president — a paid position charged with overseeing the Academy’s day-to-day operations and a staff of about 35. Leavitt joined in time to help shepherd the org through the Emmy license fee negotiation.

Latin fracas

More recently, ATAS and its estranged East Coast cousin, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, erupted into a war of words over the proposed Latin Emmys.

The two orgs had grown closer in recent years and even talked of reunification — until NATAS filed a demand for arbitration against ATAS, accusing the Hollywood org of dragging its feet in helping launch a new Latin Emmy Awards.

But those issues aside, Zabel leaves a TV Academy vastly different from the one he took over in 2001.

Zabel said he doesn’t plan to actively pursue another major role within the Academy but would be willing to help out if asked. But he also points out that there are still four months left in his term — and he still hopes to make some noise before stepping down in October.

To that end, he’s organized an informal conference with leaders from the four major networks to discuss the state of the TV Academy.

According to Zabel, ABC’s Lloyd Braun, Fox’s Sandy Grushow, CBS’ Leslie Moonves and NBC’s Jeff Zucker have all agreed to attend the session, which will likely be held in late June, in order to share their thoughts and ideas about issues involving the org.

Zabel will also have a chance to say his farewells at this year’s Emmycast, where he’ll give one last speech as chairman of the Academy.