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HRTS Member Profile: Jon Shaffner

Jon Shaffner

Jon Shaffner

John Shaffner is Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. I recently had a chance to speak with John to discuss Mark Burnett, insecurity and Chuck Lorre.

Q: Can you tell us about your background and what made you want to work in TV?
-I was bit by the theater bug at a very early age, being exposed to my parents’ enthusiasm for the stage and from some of my mom’s relatives who worked in show business. The magic of the theater was always part of my growing up years in little Missoula, Montana. In high school I was bit by another classic bug, the high school drama teacher, and served as president of the drama club, Thespian Troupe #483. When I started at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota I felt a responsibility to pursue something other than theatre but I found that I had to follow my passion and at Christmas that year I told my parents so. I transferred back to the University of Montana and studied theater there and was very much there in the beginning of what is now known as the Missoula Children’s Theater, an international touring company.

I decided that if I wanted to go forward in the business I’d need further education so I went to Carnegie Mellon and got my Masters Degree in stage design, with an emphasis on scenery and costume design. My first job was at the Seattle Rep but when my partner Joe Stewart graduated from CMU we moved to New York, where I had my big break, designing the TAMING OF THE SHREW with Meryl Streep and Raoul Julia and ALLS WELL for Joe Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival in Central Park. While continuing to work in theater I also worked on some television projects. We knew that Hollywood was in our future so we bought a 1965 Thunderbird convertible in Brooklyn and drove it across the country. Not long after, I began work with a wonderful production designer, Edward Stephenson, and the last project for him was decorating the pilot for THE GOLDEN GIRLS.

At the same time I had made friends with Bob Banner and his company Art Directing a Perry Como Christmas Show when in New York. Thru him I met Sam Riddle and designed everything for Bob, Sam and Al Masini for many years, including STAR SEARCH, which I also named! Wonderful mentors all of them, great people.

Through a series of events and recommendations, I began work with David Copperfield. When I began work with David I brought my partner Joe Stewart in and we did it together. We designed eleven of David’s television specials and were recognized with three consecutive Emmys for production design. One of David’s producers, Kevin Bright, brought us in to do production design on FRIENDS and that lead to many more comedy series. Currently I’m designing for TWO AND A HALF MEN, THE BIG BANG THEORY and MIKE & MOLLY, and have enjoyed a long-term working relationship with Chuck Lorre.

It’s always been important to me to consider things that we can do together on behalf of our television community, which lead me to my involvement with the Television Academy. I see how important it is for all of us in television to have one common place where we can express and share our enthusiasm for the work. Andrew Carnegie once said that “my heart is in the work” and I truly find that to be the case for the majority of the people who work in our business. Their passion and enthusiasm for the work is amazing and part of what I love about the entertainment business.

Q: In your years in the business what has surprised you most?
-what surprises me the most about the television business is the consistent feeling among the people involved about the fragility of it and their insecurity, which is so curious considering it’s a powerful medium and it’s here to stay. Everyone was panicked with cable coming in and what it would do to disrupt the process of sales and everything down to distribution. Lord knows we managed to survive the multiplication of channels. Now of course the industry is nervous about VOD and the mobility of devices by which people can watch television. I remind people that television in its simplest definition is a portable picture and so however you get it, wherever you get it, it’s TV and the audience has an enormous appetite to be engaged, whether it’s to be entertained or enlightened. Simultaneously, there’s so much creative talent that wants to work. The greatest challenge that will always exist within our business is to generate the revenues to pay for the program, however it’s delivered.

Q: What kinds of services do the Academy archives offer?
-the Academy, and its good works arm, The Academy Foundation, made a decision many years ago to not engage in collecting memorabilia, etc, but rather to collect the stories of our pioneers and the people who followed. I like to remind people that there’s a pioneer born every day, there continue to be people who contribute so much and this is why our foundation is engaged in the Archive of American Television. We have hundreds of interviews and these interviews are extremely deep in what we’ve collected in terms of the amount of time we spend with the people who are being interviewed and who are now recorded for posterity. These interviews are available for free at

Our foundation also wants to help prepare the next generation, we know we’re not a college or an institution but our internship program is the very finest of its kind. It brings in students from around the country to opportunities in the television business that are amazing and we have such a success rate with our interns that not only get hired but also stay and build wonderful careers.

Q: The influence of television on our culture has been undeniable, what kind of impact do you think TV will have going forward?
-art imitates life and life imitates art, so we constantly discover that television is not only a mirror to our culture but also sometimes serves as a magnifying glass as well. It also seems at times a crystal ball that in some ways allows us to see into the future. Would “interactive” be a good term for the audience and content providers’ relationship? The quantity of choices that are available to the viewer across all delivery platforms has never been broader and “television” remains an important way for us to come together as both a national and international community. The challenge will always be for the creative people to continue to explore their creative vibe and make good television. 

Q: What is the Academy doing in new media?
-I think I like the term “trans media.” Much of the content created for internet or mobile devices is short-form but we are seeing more and more original content in a longer format. With regards to the Emmys, we’re not in the business of slicing up the pie into even more categories; we want to recognize the very top level of content. We do have currently in the Emmys a special class category for content made for the web or short-form. We want to remind people that if a piece of content is created for a webcast and it meets the criteria of a program category it is welcome to join in the contest, likewise for any discipline’s categories. For the longest time, cable felt like it was left out and so started the ACE Awards, which went away as the Emmys embraced content created across different media. We’ll embrace “new media” but it has to meet the criteria of the kind of work that we recognize, major work in writing and producing and similar.

Q: Are you considering any rule changes for Emmy nomination and voting procedures?
-what we do is constantly review our contest and how we manage it but institutions are slow and that’s a good thing because it keeps us from rushing to conclusions without a full comprehension of the consequences. Sometimes you have to slow down a little bit before you make radical changes but we’re always reviewing things and making adjustments. It’s evolutionary.

Q: What can you tell us about the upcoming Emmy show?
-I’m excited that Mark Burnett is producing, he is a prolific and creative man, he has a great team of people. I know Mark and I’ve worked with him before, he understands what the Emmys are but he is going to bring his own flavor to it. They’ve been busy producing THE VOICE and so they’re just now getting into the Emmys and looking at it. The first component of Jane Lynch as host has been put into place and that is great. Already I feel like we’re ahead of the game, I remember a year not so long ago that by July we still didn’t have a host. I’m feeling good about the show this year, there’s so much great television on to be recognized, I wish we could recognize more of it but we only have three hours. 

Q: What’s next for you?
-I will be terming out in December of this year after serving as Chairman for four years. Personally I’m looking forward to helping make sure that the Academy continues to move forward with the Television Academy Honors, which I so believe in, and I believe is so important to our community. I’m also looking for some time now to work with some charitable organizations in the Los Angeles area. I also plan to keep working! I am looking forward to seeing how Chuck Lorre introduces Ashton Kutcher into TWO AND HALF MEN. I’m looking forward to seeing how MIKE & MOLLY evolves in the second season, I think it’s a wonderful show, and lots of other work coming our way at the home office. I’m also looking forward to spending more time at my second home in Montana.

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