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A year into his tenure as Television Academy CEO, Frank Scherma held big plans for 2020. He had managed to include items in the organization’s budget to hire a diversity consultant. He had plans to launch an in-person recruitment effort to bring a new generation of members into the Academy fold. He was ready to conduct an industrywide survey to map out the future of the TV business. 

And then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Months later, the Academy has jump-started the recruitment process for a diversity leader, and that membership drive is ready to go once it’s safe to do so. But Scherma is mostly concerned right now with making sure this year’s Emmys go off without a hitch, wrapping up the most unusual awards season ever. I spoke exclusively with Scherma recently about the year that was — and almost wasn’t.

What were the conversations inside the Academy like in early March when you realized campaigning was going to have to be altered?

What [Academy president Maury McIntyre] and I and the team kept coming back to was, we’ve got to keep people safe. I think everybody was just trying to figure out how serious this was and how long this was going to last. I don’t think anybody thought that in August we’d still have most people working from home and most places shut down. Everybody thought this was going to be much, much shorter.

At first FYC continued, but the plan was going to be without audiences. Then it was scrapped altogether, and the networks and studios asked you to push the calendar back.

There was the concern about talent, and whether talent was going to be ready to come and sit in a panel and have 500 people in an audience asking questions. It was all those things; we were starting to hear, ‘We can’t do this.’ I had a show that my company was going to be doing at live events, including Coachella. I started to see how we weren’t going to have events very soon on. There were all those unknowns, and I think the unknowns are what pushed us in the direction of being smart about this. 

How do you think campaigning went? Did the lack of big events level the playing field?

I go back and forth because I don’t know if all this advertising increases people voting for the show or if it just brings more awareness. People are watching more now than they ever did and actually seeing more of the shows to vote than they ever had the time to do. That’s a positive. Hopefully it’s democratized things a little bit more.

The Academy started vetting voting membership this year. Did that impact nominations?

It might have, but I don’t have any statistics to say. I know that the people who are voting are people working in the industry or who have been in the industry long enough. 

The DVD screener ban also went into effect this year. How did it go?

I’m sure there were some members that like to keep these things in their library, but I think it was offset by the understanding of ecologically, environmentally how much better it was. I think everybody’s been able to see everything and figure out how to see everything.

Some networks and studios say the increased fees meant they didn’t save as much money.

When we originally went out to all our partners, we said there has to be a financial structure that works. Maybe they’re not saving a lot of money within the Television Academy, but they’re saving an enormous amount of money not having to make these and send them out. So it’s a little disingenuous to say, “We’re not saving any money,” because they really are. 

The Academy also went with a new calculation for the number of nominees in a category based on entries. 

That was totally because of all your articles. [Laughs.] You did have a point that there’s all these shows coming in. We wanted to have some sort of centralized thinking that worked across all categories and allowed the great shows that are now being made to get some recognition. Most of the rules of the Academy are from when there were three or four networks. There was a misalignment. 

With diversity, we saw an uptick in Black nominees, but there’s still a ways to go with Latinx and Asian representation.

When we look at the numbers, they’re much better, from a gender diversity point of view, [for] Black performers. Yes, there is still work to be done. Everybody that I talk to understands that the industry itself has to really change and be more inclusive and get people in. What we want to do as an Academy is to open up, to let people [know] who don’t know that they can be members. 

Inspired by Asia Kate Dillon, I’ve advanced the idea that maybe it’s time to get rid of gender distinctions in awards shows. Possible for the Emmys?

That’s an interesting concept — that there is no gender-specific award. I don’t know how that would work completely. It would mean a lot less awards, which could be good for the show. It’s something that we need to talk about; it’s something that we need to figure out. It’s been brought up, but we haven’t delved into it very deeply yet.

The Creative Arts Emmys is split over five nights. Isn’t that a lot?

I think not being in the room gives you a certain period of time that you’re not burned out on it. If we did two-and-a-half-hour shows, I don’t know if people would last through the whole thing. Think this allows people to watch more of the shows. 

I assume the virtual aspect of this year’s Emmys gives host Jimmy Kimmel and executive producers Reggie Hudlin and Done+Dusted license to mix things up. 

What I keep going back to is, how do we make this show more entertaining? How do we make it more fun for the viewers and, at the same time, respectful of the winners?  We’re talking every week, and I’m very happy right now in where it seems to be going. Just hope that the internet gods are with us.

Hopefully things return to normal next year. What’s going to permanently change?

I think we’re going to be a little more aware of safety on our sets. I don’t know if there’s going to be as much travel. And if you look at the times that we’ve come out of different crises, people want to laugh. 

How did the pandemic and limited FYC season impact the Academy financially? 

We’re actually in good shape. We had a lot of entries, which helped. We have some terrific sponsors who have stood by us, even in this time. We’re going to come out of this probably stronger and smarter about how we do things.