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Emmy Politics Lead TV Academy Toward Uncertain Future

This year’s unpredictable Emmy race reflected a video-content industry — “television” almost feels too confining — at something of a crossroads. Although HBO dominated the ceremony, streaming services continue to expand their footprint, along with their ambitions, while the broadcast networks that carry the awards have been largely reduced to the role of spectators at a party they host.

The voting clearly exhibited a populist streak that addressed some longstanding criticisms — such as anointing “Game of Thrones,” a hugely popular series in a fantasy genre that has largely been denied recognition, as best drama. But the winners are equally emblematic of the juncture at which the Television Academy finds itself.

The much-discussed “golden age” of television has presented the organization behind the Emmys with a host of challenges, making it difficult to keep all of its constituencies happy. And this comes amid a $40 million fundraising drive to reopen the academy’s North Hollywood venue, which means putting a hand out to an industry where perceived slights and snubs die hard.

Wrangling all of the Television Academy’s diverse interests, from the peer groups that make up its board to the broadcast networks whose license fees pay much of the freight for its operations, has been likened to herding cats. Perhaps that’s why, amid the fundraising initiative, the academy took the unprecedented step of extending the term of each of its officers and governors by one year, which required amending its bylaws.

That means TV Acad chairman Bruce Rosenblum, the former Warner Bros. television chief who now heads TV and digital for Legendary Entertainment, will serve a fifth consecutive year. Insiders say one of the leadership’s priorities is to find another top TV exec to take the baton, the thought being that the academy can’t slide back to the days when members with lower profiles or less industry clout hold the top elected post.

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That represents a departure from a time when representatives from the sound or production design branches could serve their time and eventually ascend to oversee the group. While such past presidents have always been among the academy’s more democratic aspects, as a practical matter, veterans say things run more smoothly when an executive can readily access other industry leaders.

Still, the fact Rosenblum and company felt compelled to postpone installing a new chairman and board speaks to the fact that nobody meeting that description was lining up to fill his shoes, especially in the midst of the fundraising campaign. And despite the generally positive response to the winners on Emmy night, the evening also played out in ways that could exacerbate that process.

Opening up voting to the academy’s nearly 20,000 members did produce some positives, including “Thrones’” ascent. The academy-wide approach replaced blue-ribbon panels that assembled to watch and rate programs, and, as one academy veteran grumbled, the shift risks turning the awards into a popularity contest — the industry’s version of the People’s Choice Awards.

Of course, any change comes with tradeoffs. The knock on the panels was that only retired or underemployed members had the time to invest in them, favoring more traditional programs and handicapping others. In opening up the process to everyone, the concern is votes will be cast based on name recognition and reputation, not merit.

This year’s Emmys made history, for the first time honoring an African-American actress, “How to Get Away With Murder” star Viola Davis, as best drama lead, with supporting wins for Uzo Aduba (“Orange Is the New Black”) and Regina King (“American Crime”). Still, HBO’s overwhelming performance — sweeping the top drama, comedy and limited series awards with “Thrones,” “Veep” and “Olive Kitteridge” — will surely feed gripes about an “HBO bias,” a throwback to the days when broadcasters complained about airing what one dubbed a “three-hour commercial” for the pay cabler. The four major broadcasters took home 26 Emmys in total between the Creative Arts and Primetime races, compared with 43 for HBO.

Finally, ratings sunk to a historic low, reflecting, perhaps, the overabundance of award shows, fragmentation of the audience and the unassailable power of the NFL, as NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” didn’t miss a beat against the kudocast. Whatever the causes, the slide won’t help in selling commercial time for next year’s awards (on ABC), or when it comes time for the TV Academy to renew its telecast licensing pact in 2018. At this stage of the game, there are questions whether the Big Four will want to continue with the rotating host agreement for the telecast, which has been in place since 1994.

These issues promise to linger beyond Rosenblum’s tenure as chairman. So while this year’s big Emmy winner is built around a mythical kingdom where a host of colorful characters thirst to wear the crown, the land of TV is likely going to have to convince one of its heavyweights that this hot seat — or Iron Throne — is worth the aggravation.

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