In a move that reflects the television industry's growing embrace of the Internet, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is making programming delivered over broadband eligible for its Emmy Awards beginning in 2007.
The academy's board of governors has approved a change in its bylaws, establishing broadband as a recognized distribution center for television along with broadcast, cable and satellite. Broadband video content is distributed through high-speed Internet service to computers and sometimes mobile phones and hand-held devices.
"The implications, in my mind, are pretty huge," said Brian Seth Hurst, a member of the board who has led efforts to recognize "new" media programming at the academy. "It now means that Mark Burnett's 'Gold Rush!' on AOL could be entered into competition against 'Survivor.' "
Academy officials said this week that they haven't worked out the details but that drama series, reality shows, sitcoms and other video programs designed specifically for websites may seek to compete in all 27 prime-time categories.
Although the bylaw change was approved about a month ago, the academy didn't publicize it until this week, after the 2006 Emmy nominees were announced. "We didn't want to confuse entrants," Hurst said.
The North Hollywood-based television academy and its counterpart in New York, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which hands out Emmys for daytime, news and sports programming, have rushed to embrace new media with a new crop of awards.
The New York academy will award its first emerging-media Emmy for news and documentary programming in September, then will hand out more Emmys for business and financial reporting on new-media platforms later this year, said Cheryl Daly, the academy's communications director. Another Emmy for public and community service programming in emerging media is soon to come.
The North Hollywood-based academy, meanwhile, has a separate set of Emmy Awards for interactive television -- programming that encourages viewer participation, such as online chats and social networking, as well as additional content, such as graphics or photographs. Finalists were announced Monday.
Neither academy sees competition brewing -- nor a proliferation of awards -- but Hurst, co-governor of the local academy's interactive-media peer group, acknowledges there is confusion with several new-media Emmys now available. As more video content is produced for the Internet, he said, both television academies are responding.
"We used to be the redheaded stepchildren, and now we're a legitimate part of the business," said Hurst, who also is chief executive of the Opportunity Management Company in Los Angeles, which helps companies develop cross-platform media strategies.
As more TV viewers, particularly young people, turn to the Web for entertainment and news, the networks and Internet service providers such as AOL and Yahoo have begun offering more original programming.
This summer AOL plans to launch "Gold Rush!" as a Web-only reality program produced by Burnett. It's also signed an agreement with Ashton Kutcher's production company, Katalyst Films Inc., to develop five programs, each with at least 20 "webisodes."
MTV, Nickelodeon and Bravo have broadband channels for TV and Web-only shows. Broadcast networks, meanwhile, are experimenting with digital platforms show by show. ABC and Fox have made some prime-time shows available online, and NBC.com began airing a 10-webisode series of "The Office" Thursday.
The academy's decision to elevate broadband television programming for prime-time Emmy eligibility was largely driven by the success of AOL's broadcast of "Live 8" last year, said John Leverence, senior vice president of awards for the organization. More than 5 million people visited AOL Music to watch the fundraising rock concerts as they were broadcast from cities around the world on July 2, 2005.
"It's uncharted territory, and we can only take precedence as best we can," Leverence said of the merging between Internet programming and the Emmys. "I think it's very much going to be that the practice won't follow the theory. The theory will follow the practice."
Indeed, the academy will likely face prickly questions regarding entries next year now that broadband has an open door to its most prestigious awards. For example, would a two-minute webisode of "24" be allowed in the same prime-time directing category as the 60-minute action series on Fox?
The bylaw change did not establish specific rules regarding time requirements for broadband content, and entries will have to be considered for eligibility case by case, Leverence said.
Tracy Swedlow, founder of InteractiveTV Today, a website that reports on the industry, views the changes as "absolutely positive." But she'll be watching to see just how well broadband entries do against traditional heavyweights as the prime-time entries get winnowed to finalists and winners.
"It will shake up the television industry and it will put the average user on the same level, if it's well done, with professionals who've been working in this [new media] business a long time," Swedlow said of broadband's acceptance in the academy.
She foresees something of a culture clash. Production quality, for example, isn't valued as much by the Web community as creativity and cleverness. The industries -- and their audiences -- "have a completely different set of skills and a completely different understanding of what is powerful," Swedlow said.
Indeed, although the Television Academy is eager to bring the Internet into the Emmy community, it's not quite ready to make room for YouTube entries.
"You're not going to get user-generated content competing with network television programming," Hurst said.
But he added, "If you developed a really compelling seven-minute piece that aired daily or once a week and had compelling characters and a good story, I'd say it might have a shot."