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The New Yorker - September 15, 1997


Why does everyone seem to win television’s most recognized award?


 John Cannon affects a grave, almost funereal mien, greeting a visitor to his dimly lit offices with a solemn handshake. Although it is a warm July day, his windows are shut and the air-conditioning is off. When he sits, he doesn’t unbutton his double-breasted blue pin-striped jacket; when he speaks, he barely gestures. He is surrounded by artifacts—several Emmy trophies, a framed citation from the mayor of Boston, photographs, books of biography and American history. A man in his late seventies, he seems a figure from another era; an out-of-fashion powder-blue silk handkerchief protrudes from his breast pocket, neither clashing with nor quite complementing a striped blue shirt and a light-blue tie.

In a culture that esteems prizes—and hands them out to almost every profession on almost any occasion—Cannon more than plays his part. For the past twenty years, he has served as the president of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which bestows the Emmy award. “The Emmy is the single most famous award in TV,” Cannon declares. “The Oscar and the Emmy are the two most widely recognized statuettes in the world.” And Cannon’s literature proclaims that, with twelve thousand members, the academy is “the single largest television-industry professional organization in the world.”

However, Cannon’s National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences should not to be confused with the West Coast’s Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. The two groups officially split in 1976, after Cannon bested a Los Angeles-based rival for the presidency of the academy, but the two coasts have been taking different paths almost since 1946, when the academy was founded, in California. On the West Coast, Emmys are awarded on prime-time television and given to entertainment figures. On the East Coast, the award itself—a fifteen-inch statue of a winged woman reaching up and grasping an electron—is often better known than its recipients. On September 10th, at the eighteenth annual black-tie News and Documentary Awards presentation, at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, Cannon will preside over one of many such ceremonies that he conducts each year. Officially, Cannon’s organization celebrates television’s achievements, and its aim is to set standards for the industry. The fact is that Cannon is running a factory.

Each year, his organization manufactures Emmys for much more than news and documentaries. The award ceremonies tend to be non-stop. In April, Cannon is the host of a black-tie dinner for up to eight hundred people and awards Emmys for Sports. In May, the Daytime Emmys are televised from Radio City Music Hall. In August, Community Service Programs and Projects are celebrated. September is reserved for News and Documentary; October brings Scientific and Technical Achievement; and in November it’s the International Broadcasters. In addition, there are Emmy ceremonies to present Special Recognition Awards and Trustees Awards—not to mention the seventeen chapters of Cannon’s organization which bestow their own awards on local stations. In all, in 1996 the Academy handed out one thousand one hundred and forty-seven Emmys.

Some recipients lose count of the number they’ve won. When I asked the CBS anchorman, Dan Rather, how many he possessed, he replied, “I honestly don’t know.” He has won twenty-four.

Cannon's New York-based academy, which is registered as a nonprofit 501(c)6 organization, collected, according to its I.R.S. filing, nearly five million dollars in its last fiscal year. The money comes from fees paid by broadcast and cable companies for each nomination submitted; from ticket sales to the Emmy ceremonies; from the sale of television rights to some of the Emmy ceremonies; and from the sale of Emmy trophies when the winners are part of a team. Aware of this, Richard Kaplan, the former ABC and CBS producer, who was appointed president of CNN last month, was startled to learn that it is a nonprofit organization.

The academy uses its money to employ a staff of eighteen; to hire the accounting firms of Lutz & Carr and Deloitte & Touche to make sure that no Emmy ballot boxes are stuffed; to conduct seminars; to publish a quarterly newsletter and a magazine; to grant a smattering of college scholarships and to provide health benefits for members; and to produce trophies and invitations to the dinners. Another portion takes care of Cannon’s salary (according to the last federal filing, his compensation was two hundred and fourteen thousand dollars), and another slice supports Cannon’s entertainment expenses (twenty-nine thousand dollars). “The Emmy is very democratic,” Cannon said. Anyone who pays can be nominated, and these entries go directly to the jurors. The only function his staff performs, Cannon went on, is “to see that everything is placed in the correct category.” When that is done, the democratic process that Cannon extolls is fully engaged.

“I have never met anybody in television who does not have an Emmy, and I find that strange,” Charles R. Eisendrath, the director of the University of Michigan’s Journalism Fellows Program, said. In 1996, two hundred and eighty-four individuals received News and Documentary Emmys. Richard Kaplan is tied with Rather, Ted Koppel, and Bill Moyers for second place in the News Emmy-collection derby. (Roone Arledge is first, with thirty.) Yet he calls them “a fraud in that the categories are stupid.” He said, “It’s a scam because it costs a fortune to enter. We used to write a five-thousandto-six-thousand-dollar check for ‘ABC World News Tonight’ just to enter.”

This year’s News and Documentary Emmys will include awards for general coverage of a single breaking news story on a program, as well as for investigative journalism, but there are separate awards in these categories for “segments” of a program. The categories can be confusing. The press release announcing the nominations exhausts twenty-eight pages. Paul Friedman, the executive producer of “ABC World News Tonight,” observes, “They give out too many of them and thus devalue them.”

Walter Cronkite, who was a president of the academy from 1959 to 1960, told Thomas O’Neil in an interview for his generally adulatory book “The Emmys” that the organization had moved away from its original inspiration, which was the French Academy of wise men and women “who sat in judgment of their peers.” Excellence versus egalitarianism. “I spoke up vociferously for this and I was shouted down by the huge majority—the huge majority,” Cronkite recalled, saying that they were “principally motivated with the idea of giving awards each year and putting on a good show.” The former CBS News president Fred Friendly, joined by third-ranked ABC News, boycotted the awards in the mid-sixties, complaining that they were “unprofessional” because they were too abundant.

Such disdain is usually only whispered, since TV newspeople—as they freely confess—yearn to collect more awards. Television is a medium that measures success by ratings (print journalists can only guess at their readership), and awards therefore take on a special importance as a credential. The print press, which also is enormously fond of giving itself awards in all sorts of categories, has been quick to go along. The recent CNN press release announcing Richard Kaplan’s appointment as president boasted, “He is the winner of 34 Emmy Awards.” News accounts usually cited this figure (the correct number is twenty-four) in their opening paragraph.

While many people associated with television dismiss the Emmy process, between seven hundred and eight hundred newspeople and executives will pay three thousand dollars a table to wear black tie and squirm and applaud as Cannon presents Emmys for News and Documentary and lathers them with praise. Those in attendance know that in this contest there are few losers. “If you’re a network and you have six nominations, you know you’ll win three,” a senior producer who has won numerous Emmys and hopes to snare at least one more this week told me. The producer said that they split the awards. “Why? This is a business. The Emmys want all the networks to be happy.” Whether this charge is justified or not, Tom Brokaw, the NBC anchor, says that, unlike the more esteemed duPont television-and-radio awards, for example, where the ceremony is free and open, the Emmy ceremonies give you the “feeling you’re buying your way in and out of the room.”

Cannon has been an actor and a broadcaster, working for radio station WBBM, in Chicago. He also conducted interviews, mostly of celebrities, for NBC’s radio program “Monitor.” In the early seventies, Cannon did voice-overs for Department of State footage of  head-of-state visits.

The Emmy process that Cannon has presided over for two decades works this way: Each spring, broadcast or cable networks or individuals pay fees ranging from a hundred to three hundred dollars to nominate themselves for an Emmy; this year, there were nearly thirteen hundred entries in thirty-two categories. It is not unusual for awards to charge a nominating fee, but the Emmy toll does get pricey. (The duPont and the Peabody awards charge not more than a hundred and a hundred and fifty, respectively. Print’s most luminous prize—the Pulitzer—charges fifty dollars per book or newspaper or music applicant; the Pulitzer for drama has no application fee.) The NBC News president, Andrew Lack, reports that his division budgets about twenty-five thousand dollars just to pay for Emmy nominations, yet he concedes, “I don’t have great regard for the fairness of whether these awards represent the best in our industry.”

One weekend in late May or in June, two hundred or so judges are invited to various rooms at a hotel, and there, on VCRs, they watch each nominee in a single category. If any of the six to twenty peer judges cannot make it that weekend, they go to watch in the academy’s offices, on West Fifty-seventh Street. “There is no discussion” among the judges, explains Cannon. Each simply assigns an entry a grade from one to five and the grades are collected by the accounting firm. The firms add up the scores and eliminate those which score below a certain total. The standard the judges use, Cannon says, is a “standard of excellence.”

A different description is provided by one of the anonymous jurors—a producer who has been an Emmy judge three times. The day begins with “a fancy breakfast,” says this producer, and breakfast is followed by an assignment to a category—in this case, to “general coverage of a single breaking news story.” The producer explains, “It was not what I thought of as breaking news. It was little feature stories. You don’t watch the whole show. If it’s a one-hour show, you watch maybe five minutes.” A segment from the “Today” show was tossed in with an hourlong documentary from CNN. This judge was puzzled that there were so many nominees from NBC and none from ABC. Instead of  “excellence,” the producer walked away thinking another criterion was employed: “You have the feeling that something is going on that has nothing to do with merit but has to do with submission fees.” Unlike most award competitions, the judges do not debate the merits of each entry, or even speak to each other; they just leave their scorecards with the accountants.

Cannon says the judges are peers, but he won’t reveal who they are, and that especially irritates critics of the awards. Tom Brokaw, who has won five Emmys, said, “I’m troubled by the procedures—by not knowing who the judges are, by the commercial aspects of it. This man makes his living at this.” The ABC anchor Peter Jennings, who has won ten, said it “bothers” him that the Emmy judges are anonymous, and for that reason he doesn’t rate the Emmy as highly as he does the duPont or the Peabody. Cannon explains that the judges are anonymous in order to avoid lobbying or retribution. “Once an individual submits to being a judge, we feel we must defend him,” he said. “We must protect his reputation.” When I asked Cannon how or why he must protect a reputation that is anonymous, he said only, “There is a circular argument there. We don’t think of it that way.” (Members of both academies vote to nominate programs for the entertainment awards. On the West Coast, winners are then chosen by a panel of peers—also anonymous—who apply to be on it.)

Another source of confusion is the nominations themselves. In the category “outstanding general coverage of a single breaking news story (programs),” for example, ABC’s “Nightline” was nominated for its coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800. It competed against another “Nightline,” describing the arrest of the Unabomber suspect, and against a CBS “48 Hours” on the Citadel. An inexplicable fourth, and final, nominee in this category was an A&E “Biography” of the late George Burns.

Cannon has defenders. Tom Brokaw told me that he respects the democratic benefits of the award: “It still has meaning to people. I fully understand the value of recognition. At the same time, especially as a journalist, you have to look hard at the real value of the recognition.” And CBS’s Rather said, “I don’t consider the Emmys a joke. I consider them an honor. They’re a plus for the craft. I’m always impressed that younger people in the business get dressed up for the Emmys, and when they win one they glow.”

In the end, the Emmys, not unlike some other professional awards, are beset by a fundamental contradiction: the academy is both judge and booster. “We do all we can to make this a better industry,” Cannon said, and a moment later he observed, “We have great access to the upper echelons of the industry.” But in carrying out a program that is more noted for its generosity than for its rigor, Cannon often seems to fill the role of nurse rather than that of doctor. Even supporters such as Dan Rather say that the Emmys give too many awards. Now and then, Rather suggested, the academy should announce, “ ‘There’s nothing in this category that deserves an award.’ Doing that would increase the value of the award.” For Richard Kaplan’s wife, such an announcement would certainly increase the value of the award. “At this point, my wife won’t let me bring any more Emmys in the house,” Kaplan said. ©


© 1996-2002, Ken Auletta - all rights reserved
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