New Television Academy chairman and CEO Frank Scherma came into the position with a bang: The org’s decision to eliminate Emmy DVD screeners effective next year came at the very beginning of his tenure (although it had been in the works for some time), and helped define his first few months at the helm. Scherma’s day job is serving as president of RadicalMedia (“Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”); he helped oversee the company’s evolution from commercials and music videos to producing documentaries and series like IFC’s new “Sherman’s Showcase.” At the Academy, he hopes to use that experience to similarly guide the org as it faces a dramatic shift in the industry.
I sat down with Scherma recently to conduct his first extensive interview in his new role. Since he’s just seven months in, he’s still working with Academy president and COO Maury McIntyre, who oversees day-to-day operations, to assess the org’s needs before solidifying a plan of attack. But he was able to discuss the DVD ban and what’s next, how extensive this year’s “block voting” scandal was, and the decision to go without an Emmy host this year, among other topics. An edited version of that conversation follows.
What interested you in the Academy chairman role?
The industry just keeps changing and evolving and moving at a rapid pace. I felt that I could help within the Academy as changes were happening. How do we figure things out with all the stuff that’s going on in television, and what is television?
What was your take on the Academy, and how to navigate such a big bureaucracy with competing interests?
I wasn’t looking at it like this big massive organization that was dysfunctional. That’s not the way I looked at it. If you had a game plan and if you had an agenda, you had a lot of really smart people on the board and on the staff that could [help] figure out what we, as an Academy wanted to do within the television world. When I talked about running, I said, “Everybody in this room is going to have to support me. Otherwise I can’t do it.” It’s a supportive organization and we’re all volunteers and everybody stepped up.
What were some of the key challenges that the Academy faces?
We’re looking at a time when there’s more television being made than anything else. And that’s a challenge in itself, that there’s so much work out there and there are different business models that we all have to be prepared for as things change. I don’t have the solutions.
What did you articulate to the members that you wanted to accomplish?
You saw what we did with DVDs, which I thought was really smart for both the industry and for us. We’re saving the industry a lot of money and we’re saving the environment. I want to look forward to what television is going to be like in five years. Maybe down the line, do some sort of study that we can come out with and say, “OK, here’s what the best guesses are for the next five years” so that our members can prepare for it.
What was the reaction to the decision to ban DVD screeners?
Every email that we got, every person that I saw at an event, thanked me. Everyone was still doing it because everybody else was doing it. But I would come in to the office and there’d be a stack of a hundred DVDs behind my assistant, every week.
How will the Academy make up for the financial hit of not charging for DVD screeners anymore?
When we were replacing the DVDs, we went out to the folks in the industry and said, “Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s the support that we’re going to need from you. It’ll cost you less, but we’ll still need you to pay for a certain thing to get to our members.” Everybody was embracing that. So I don’t think it’ll be a giant hit. It’s a smart thing for the industry. We’re saving them a lot of money.
What’s the plan moving forward, without DVDs?
Maury is working on that right now. We have a full digital team that’s working on what’s going to be the best way for people to [view screeners]. And what’s the best way for everybody to get to all our members, so that they can see the stuff.
How can you expand membership with more young people and more diverse members?
We have to look at where all the creators are, see what it is that they’re looking for and understand what they’re doing. This year we were down at Comic-Con, at SXSW, at ATX. There are younger members there. Let’s find out how we can bring in a different group of people and make the Academy relevant to them.” Which is really important to me as well as, as you said, a diverse group. As the industry continues to get more diverse, we’ll continue to in that vein.
How quickly can you implement new ways to keep pace with the industry changes?
This first year for me is a lot of “Okay, what’s working, what are we doing, how are we going to do it?” And then figuring out what changes do we have to make, if any. You can’t walk into an organization like this and just try to throw a bunch of M80’s in it and blow it up.
Can you address concerns that the broadcast networks continue to be squeezed out of contention?
NBC was third [among all programmers] this year. So I think good shows will always come to the top. Yes, it’s going to be harder because they have certain restrictions that streamers don’t have in terms of language and whatever they can do. But I don’t know if they’re being squeezed out, as I think there are just so much great shows out there that the competition is just really big.
It’s almost impossible to classify certain shows now. As the lines blur between genres, what can the Academy do?
There’s a structure and sometimes you have to look at structures and say, “Okay, what’s working?” For me, it’s about how do we maintain the excellence of the Emmy. So however we do that within the awards, however we figure that out is what matters to me.
Campaign season continues to get more intense. What do you make of how much money is being spent on FYC?
Putting on my marketing hat from the other side of my business, people have the right to market how they want to market their shows. I think our members are watching the shows and the ones that really resonate with them are the ones they’re voting for, not the ones that they just had a glass of wine at an event.
A new events lottery system was implemented this year in an attempt to broaden the audience for those events. Did it work?
A lot of our partners are saying, “Wow, we’re seeing a lot of different people in the audience. We’re really happy about that. It’s not the same people who are in the audience.” I think it’s been much more fair. That’s what matters to me, is that the working professionals are getting to see these things and getting in.
Do you think an FYC spending cap would work or make sense?
I don’t see how you sit with somebody and tell them how to spend their marketing dollars. I keep pointing to the fact that a lot of the shows that got nominated did not have those big billboards, did not have all of those events.
There was a fresh infusion of new blood at the Emmy nominations this year, such as “Schitt’s Creek” and “Fleabag.” What do you attribute that to?
I think it’s a combination of the fact that we went from paper ballots to digital ballots; you had a wider range of people voting; and there’s enough diversity that really touches individuals and they vote for the shows that matter to them.
Can you explain the recent “block voting” controversy, in which voters communicated with each other before casting ballots, and how it was resolved?
We’re making sure that the voting is done in the way that it should be done. When we heard about it, we stopped it. From what I can see, it was an isolated issue. I’m very confident, in talking with everybody, that the voting is honest and fair in the right way.
Were you surprised there isn’t a Governors Award honoree for the first time in 25 years?
I don’t think anybody even realized it was the first time in 25 years. A lot of what we’ve all been talking about is how important that Emmy is. And we always want to make sure that whoever’s getting an award warrants that award. There’s a committee that puts it together, and it does not have to be given out. They just felt this year nobody rose to the top for them.
There’s no Emmy host this year. How big a change is this to you?
We’ve been doing our Creative Arts awards without a host for years, and it’s been very successful. They’re still funny nights, and they’re good nights, and it’s worked for many, many years. One thing I’ve learned as a producer is, you have to let your creative team create, and you have to say, “What’s going to be the best show?” And if this is what they’re feeling it is, we’ll figure out how to make the best show with them.
As a producer, what do you think can be done to improve awards shows and perhaps grow ratings?
Everybody always loves to laugh, so I’m always a big fan of any of the comedy that you can actually get on there in short periods of time. I think moving from category to category and having the right people say the right thing about why someone’s getting an award and why they’re getting it is important. This is about we’re rewarding our members of excellence with excellence, and they deserve their moment in the sun.
What advice did you get from your predecessors?
There’s actually a former chairman lunch that they all brought me to, and everybody had their advice. A lot of it was to listen for the first year and understand what was going on. When you bring them in and ask them, “What do we want to do?” then they feel that they’re empowered, which I want them to be.
Are you ready to give a speech on the telecast?
I like that kind of stuff. My wife already made me buy a new tux, so I’m good.