By Bruce Shutan
Television production crews stand to reap huge benefits from the recently renewed U.S. TV rights to the Primetime Emmy Awards for the next eight years. The record $52 million agreement signed between the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) and the broadcast networks represents an eye-popping 250-percent hike in the license fee. Much of that money will go to ATAS career-development programs, ceremonial parity and television-history initiatives.
One immediate beneficiary is the Creative Arts Awards Emmy Awards, which in recent years has been followed by a gala event comparable to the Primetime Emmy Governors Ball. Funds were added to the cost of this year’s event to burnish the show’s production values, reports Frank Kohler, ATAS chief financial and administrative officer. Negotiations are nearly complete for a three-year agreement to run the ceremony for television’s unsung heroes on E! Entertainment Television.
Additionally, the Academy’s presence in cyberspace will undergo improvements, including upgrades to the ATAS website’s infrastructure and technology platform, job postings, a credits library, website hosting for individual members and peer group chat rooms. In addition, expanded e-commerce opportunities will enable members to renew their dues online and improve e-mail contact with the Board of Governors. Kohler also notes that the ATAS is working with a database company “to standardize the gathering of credit information in the television industry.” The hope is that doors will open to various guilds across town, creating a more reliable credits-history database.
But the most breathtaking change of all will help secure the crew’s place in history. A feasibility study is under way to expand the Archive of American Television, which features interviews with more than 350 TV pioneers, performers, writers, producers and behind-the-camera talent stored on about 1,500 hours of videotape. The aim is to make all interviews available in digital form to a global audience for generations to come. “What’s exciting is we have now attained the world’s largest collection of its kind,” boasts Michael Rosen, the Archive’s executive producer.
The number of annual interviews recently rose from about 50 to 75 and is expected to climb further so that the ATAS can eventually accommodate an impressive wish list featuring 1,000 to 2,000 industry icons. Moreover, proceeds from the new Primetime Emmy license fee are expected to help equalize the treatment of those who work above and below the line, with greater opportunities to interview below-the-line talent soon becoming available. “Television is such a huge and collaborative industry that it would be irresponsible for us not to interview people both in front of and behind the camera,” Rosen says.
In fact, some of the best Archive interviews have been with behind-the-scenes crew who’ve never had a chance to tell their story, according to Rosen. “A camerman, grip or prop master will sit back and watch rehearsals over and over again and see how people related to each other,” he observes. “It’s revealing wisdom, insights and a unique perspective that really has been lost in the history books.”
Below-the-line icons interviewed for the Archive, which is seeking a permanent home in West L.A., include Al Borden, who served as Bob Hope’s prop master for 42 years, Lou Dorfsman, an art director and graphic designer for CBS since the mid-1940s who designed the network’s eye logo, and Jan Scott, the late art director who has won more art direction Emmys than anyone.
Others include Dick Smith, widely considered television’s first makeup artist, casting director Ethel Winant, whose career as a television executive helped break the glass ceiling, June Taylor, whose eponymous dance company helped gave legs to Jackie Gleason’s shows, set designer Bob Markel, director of photography Haskel “Buzz” Boggs, film editor Milie Lerner Bonsignori and engineer John Silva, who designed the first helicopter camera mounted.
More recent Archive interviews include makeup artist Rick Baker, costume designers Nolan Miller and Ret Turner, and composer Fred Steiner. Scheduled of interviews in the near future: stuntman Gene Lebell, stuntwoman May Boss, matte artist and special-effects designer Peter Ellenshaw, title visualizer Reza Badiyi and prop master and specialty vehicle expert George Barris.
Looking forward to years flush with cash, Kohler is hopeful that the new license agreement will help elevate the overall position of production crews within the industry. “I’d like to think that everyone is treated equally in the boardroom,” he says. “I see a tremendous amount of respect, regardless of whether people are above or below the line. That’s the spirit of this organization.”
By Bruce Shutan