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Tech Emmys: Putting Up a Bigger Tent

Used to be, the Technology and Engineering Emmy Awards consisted of “things you couldn't pronounce,” said Peter Price, CEO of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

“One of the winners when I started here five years ago was the guy who invented color bars,” he recalled recently. (Technically, it was for “Development and Standardization of the Alignment Color Bar Test Signal for Television Picture Monitors.”)

Since then, Price has been trying to broaden the field of nominations for the technical Emmys — first given in 1948 — to encompass TV innovations that go well beyond the scope of traditional over-the-air broadcast.

NATAS is now accepting entries for the technology Emmys. Nominations will be announced Oct. 13, and the winners in each of 11 categories will be awarded Jan. 7, 2008, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Price is hoping to see a big showing from cable operators and their technology partners. “What we're noticing is, in the last few years, about half the entries have come from cable-TV companies,” he said. “Ten years ago, zero did.”

And again, it's not just video-multiplexing equipment. Cable's technical Emmy winners last year included Time Warner Cable's Start Over service, The Weather Channel's dynamic-advertising system and Viacom's Video Mixer mash-up application.

“What we're seeing is a change in what 'technology' means to organizations,” Price continued. “It used to mean a back-room where broadcast engineers hovered around some equipment and made sure the picture was good. Now we're seeing the creative team and the technology team are in the same room.”

NATAS has also moved into territory that doesn't have any roots in TV at all. The New York-based group has established the National Academy of Media Arts & Sciences, 90% of whose members are companies outside the television industry, such as Condé Nast Publications and The New York Times Co.

“What they all share is the creation and transmission of video,” Price said. The new-media offshoot won't run any award competitions, although NATAS has started to award “broadband Emmys” in some categories.

However, NATAS's extension of Emmy laurels into Internet video has been met with resistance by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the Los Angeles group that presents the Primetime Emmys. (NATAS awards Emmys for News, Sports, Daytime, Public Service and Technology.)

The two groups split back in 1977, and under the terms of the divorce neither is allowed to create new Emmy awards without the agreement of the other organization.

ATAS objected to its New York counterpart's plans for “Broadband Emmys,” and appealed to the American Arbitration Association to adjudicate the issue.

The arbitration group issued an order in July allowing NATAS to proceed with the presentation of its previously announced broadband awards, with the overall dispute scheduled to be decided in October.

Price, while not commenting on the disagreement, maintained that part of NATAS's charter is “to define what television is. It's not just the electronic fireplace in the living room.”

He noted that the Web-based series Satacracy 88, which won an Emmy from NATAS in June for outstanding broadband drama, was produced by “two guys in a garage.”

So is this where TV is headed?

“I think this is where a segment of television is headed,” Price responded. “There's a younger audience [that doesn't] understand 'appointment television.' They make their own appointments throughout the day. But for a broad audience, broadcast and cable are going to be where you naturally gravitate.”