New TV Academy Chief Is Under-the-Radar Choice to Follow Bruce Rosenblum

New TV Academy Chief Is Under-the-Radar Choice Follow Bruce Rosenblum
Jordan Strauss/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images

Bruce Rosenblum will be succeeded by Screech.

The Television Academy on Thursday night elected Hayma “Screech” Washington as its new chairman. Washington is a seven-time Primetime Emmy Award winner as executive producer on “The Amazing Race,” and will soon be the Academy’s first African-American chair. He will take over for Rosenblum, the newly minted business-operations president for Disney/ABC Television Group and former Warner Bros. television chief who brought long-absent clout to the unpaid role and successfully delivered on an impressive slate of initiative and reforms.

With the transition, leadership of the Academy will pass from a prestige TV power player to a lesser-known industry professional whose top qualification is prior service to the organization. It is by no means an unprecedented shift. But it is one that will shape the Academy’s immediate future — and whose success or failure may depend on how ambitious Washington proves to be.

“I am honored to follow in Bruce’s footsteps,” Washington said in a statement to Variety. “He built a great foundation. I’m looking forward to working with the entire board and professional staff to expand our member experiences, to ensure that our awards and membership activities reflect the changing television environment and to work towards having the Academy be a thought leader around inclusiveness both above and below the line and the other important issues affecting our industry.”

The Academy that Washington inherits — best known for overseeing the Primetime Emmys — is transformed from the one that Rosenblum took over in 2011. A $30 million project to complete a redesigned North Hollywood headquarters has been completed and paid for. Digital companies such as Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix have been brought into the Academy fold — the last serving as a major donor to the campus redesign project. New staff leadership has been installed in COO Maury McIntyre and CFO Heather Cochran. The Creative Arts Emmys have been successfully split from one unwieldy night into two more streamlined ceremonies. Even the time of the annual Emmy-nomination announcement has been moved from “obscenely early morning” to the more reasonable “morning” — a move that was made over surprising resistance.

None of that would have been possible without Rosenblum. When he arrived, Academy leaders were pondering a low-cost renovation to their existing campus. Rosenblum, backed by others in the leadership and buoyed by his standing as one of television’s top executives, pushed for a more ambitious redesign. He was then able to leverage his deep, high-level connections to fund-raise for the project. The Academy went so far as to suspend its two-term limit for the chair so Rosenblum could stay on for a fifth year and oversee completion of the new campus.

Rosenblum was recruited by board members to run for the leadership role in 2011 despite not having served on the board of governors, a typical prerequisite for the chair. Academy sources tell Variety that Rosenblum led a similar but unsuccessful effort to draft another industry heavyweight as his successor. Those approached shied away from the job’s considerable time demands.

That left the door open for Washington and the candidate he defeated, producer Kevin Hamburger, the Academy’s vice-chair for the last five years. With a resume that covers a handful of unscripted shows — the best known of which is “Amazing Race” — and executive experience that tops out with a VP stint at Disney’s former Buena Vista Domestic and International Productions, Washington is someone perhaps unrecognized by many in the business.

But Washington does not have to be Rosenblum. Most of the top leaders in the Academy’s history have been under-the-radar industry pros who rose to the position after long periods of involvement in the organization. Not since the Walt Disney Company’s Richard Frank served as president in the late ’80s had the organization been led by an exec of Rosenblum’s caliber.

“I am enthusiastic and confident about the future of the Academy,” Rosenblum told Variety via email. “The combination of Screech and the new officers elected last night will absolutely move the organization forward in a positive direction. Screech has broad experience in our industry and excellent relationships which will lead to a smooth transition into his role as chair. I wish all the elected officers great success over the next two years.”

With a two-year term ahead of him, Washington faces two main challenges. The first is hammering out a successor to the so-called “wheel deal” that sees the Emmys telecast rotate among the four major broadcast networks. The second is the negotiation of a new facilities deal to house the Emmys, which now take place at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Academy sources are confident that, with backing from staff and other Academy leadership, Washington can successfully navigate those negotiations — just as Rosenblum’s predecessor, John Schaffner, a production designer, did the last time the broadcast deal was renewed. And the four major broadcasters are believed to be committed to continuing the wheel arrangement, despite grumbling about the increased dominance of cable channels and streaming services at the Emmys.

The question becomes whether Washington, who has been a governor for the producers branch for five years, has ambitions bigger than securing those two agreements. It seems unlikely that Washington would be able to drive fundraising on the level that Rosenblum did for some outsize project. (The capital campaign created under Rosenblum still has $10 million left to raise on behalf of the Academy’s foundation to reach its target, an effort being led by the team that raised the first $30 million.) But nor is there any glaring opportunity for a major initiative that would require a massive donor effort the way there was with the campus after Rosenblum joined. Refining the Emmys process and throwing the Academy’s weight behind industry inclusiveness efforts will require time and hard work — not necessarily big checks.

The challenges that face the Academy’s new leader are not the kind that could only be handled by someone from the industry’s top tier. What new challenges might arise remains to be seen.