New wheel deal gives Acad ‘endless’ options

ATAS still deciding what to do with new coin

Rockets are getting deeper at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

U.S. broadcast rights for the Primetime Emmy Awards will net the Acad a record $52 million, resulting in an eye-popping 250% hike in the license fee as part of a sweetheart network wheel deal that doubles the life of the previous pact.

That means ATAS will get $5.5 million annually for the first four years of an eight-year contract, and $7.5 million annually thereafter. Previous deal was for roughly $3 million a year.

HBO was willing to fork over $10 million a year for five years for the Emmy telecast rights, though the Academy decided not to risk alienating broadcast big wigs or viewers. ATAS chairman-CEO Bryce Zabel says HBO topper Chris Albrecht “did the Academy a wonderful service by demonstrating what the telecast was truly worth in the marketplace.”

The motivation behind a bidding war was simple: “You’ve got to have the money to dream bigger dreams,” explains Zabel.

The $52 million question, of course, is just what are those dreams?

“The opportunities and challenges are endless,” enthuses ATAS prexy Todd Leavitt, a veteran network and studio exec. Still, the Academy is in no hurry to decide how to earmark the fresh coin. A budget review committee will help the board of governors prioritize a wish list.

Capital improvements are in the works to preserve the Leonard H. Goldenson Theater as one of the top showplaces in town, according to Zabel.

Other possibilities include making the Academy Web site more user-friendly by adding job postings, a chatroom, a credits library for the Academy’s 12,000 members and secure online voting for the Emmys, as well as expanding community outreach in the fight against AIDS and other charitable works.

Archival expansion

Leavitt says additional funds already have been harnessed to expand the Archive of American Television, which features a videotape collection of about 325 (and counting) interviews with TV pioneers, performers, writers, producers and craftspeople. He also reports that ATAS is developing a partnership with various academic institutions that will significantly add to the number of interviews.

Trouble is, it’s a race against time.

“Every year, you lose great people who were major contributors to television,” Leavitt says of the mortality factor. The archive, funded through the ATAS Foundation and contributions such as Bob Hope’s recent $1 million gift, is shopping for a permanent home somewhere in West L.A.

Additional beneficiaries

Ceremonies other than the Primetime Emmys that stand to benefit from the license-fee windfall include the annual induction ceremony for the TV Hall of Fame and the Emmy Creative Arts Awards, honoring achievements in cinematography, stunts, lighting, hairstyling, makeup and other crafts.

There’s also talk of resurrecting a popular summer benefit featuring TV music at the Hollywood Bowl and duplicating the success of two recent member events featuring “American Idol” at the Academy’s North Hollywood HQ and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” in Gotham.

“The increased license fee can be very helpful to us because the Academy gives us substantial financial support,” adds ATAS Foundation chair Tom Sarnoff, who is chief at Sarnoff Entertainment Corp. Still, the added coin won’t stand in his way of pursuing financial self-sufficiency for ATAS’ nonprofit arm.

A portion of the license fee has been allocated to expand educational programs. For example, the hope is to extend the foundation’s annual college internship program beyond the roughly 30 interns who are working in the industry.

But don’t look for a wholesale expansion. “We don’t want to double the number because we can’t supervise that many people,” Sarnoff explains, nor does the foundation want to detract from the program’s reputation as one of the best-run college internships. “We want to make sure interns are actually working instead of collecting paper clips.”

Another program slated for expansion is a seminar featuring about 20 nationwide college and university faculty members in the communications field. “We expose them to production companies, studios, networks and executives so that when they return to teach they can do it with more firsthand knowledge,” Sarnoff notes.

In addition, the foundation will revisit a regional program for grade-school students called Start (Student and Teacher Achievement Using the Resources of Television) Communications. The aim is to introduce TV as an educational tool to gain information and knowledge.

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