For Streaming Technology Advances, the Emmy Goes to Online Video

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Create an excellent original online series and you could win one of several awards: a Webby, a Streamy, an IAWTV Award. The list goes on. But if your company creates amazing technology that advances the entire online video ecosystem, there’s really only one award that matters: the Streaming Media Readers’ Choice Award.

Okay, maybe there’s one even higher than that. Advance the world of online video and your company could win an Emmy.

Yes, an Emmy. An actual Emmy just like the biggest and most popular TV stars and shows win every year. Just as there are Emmy winners in entertainment, there are also winners in entertainment technology.

Do they come from the same organization? No. There are actually two Emmy academies. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is based in North Hollywood, Calif., and it presents the prime­time Emmys, as well as technical Emmys that typically go to companies that advance prime­time television. On the other side of the country, in New York City, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) awards Emmys for other parts of the day, as well as for news, sports, and technology.

This East Coast technology group is made up of 40 to 50 engineers, many of them chief technology officers at significant broadcast, cable, satellite, and over­the­top entertainment companies. Each brings particular audio, video, or streaming expertise to the mix. That organization is currently run by Bob Seidel, chairman of the technology achievement committee and vice president of engineering and advanced technology for CBS Corp. When he’s not overseeing the technology behind CBS, the CW, and CBS Warner Bros., he’s guiding the NATAS as it evaluates technologies and awards statuettes.

Yes, it’s confusing that there are two academies with similar names. There used to be one group, but then a parting of the ways occurred.

“There was actually a legal decision many years ago that the two academies would separate,” Seidel says. “The East Coast academy has its own board of directors, as does the West Coast. They’re two totally separate entities that award a similar statue.”

The NATAS technology committee doesn’t accept nominations for specific products. Rather, it accepts nominations for a particular category or type of technology. The East Coast group meets three times each year: around January, March, and August; 100 percent attendance is mandatory for voting members. During the first two meetings the members discuss the nominations. Sub­chairs take on the work of investigating nominated technologies.

As the organization’s own rules spell out, “The scope of the committee is essentially an award to an individual, a company, or a scientific or technical organization for developments and/or standardization involved in engineering technologies that either represent so extensive an improvement on existing methods or are so innovative in nature that they materially have affected television.”

Nominations can come from the NATAS website or from the committee members themselves. Just being a new and noteworthy technology isn’t enough, Seidel points out. The technology has to have made a significant impact to get an Emmy.

Once the committee has its nominees, half of the voting members need to be present to vote the technologies to an investigation state. This takes place at each year’s second meeting. Investigations typically take months and look at factors such as patent applications and adoption levels. At the year’s third meeting, the members hear the results of the research and vote whether or not each category should receive an Emmy. Not surprisingly, meetings last all day. Seidel currently hosts them at the CBS offices in New York. The day is filled with passionate debate, he adds, and often gets intense. Discussions are guided by Robert’s Rules of Order, and Seidel frequently has to cut off discussions in the interest of time.

This year’s NATAS Emmy Award presentation, held at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas during the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show, was hosted by Yahoo Tech columnist David Pogue and Jeopardy host Alex Trebek. 

When a technology is considered worth an Emmy, the committee has to decide who has made the most important contributions. Sometimes it rewards a pioneer in a particular field, and sometimes it finds that multiple companies have played a role. Members debate whether or not a technology is unique to one particular company or if several groups were working on the technology in parallel, and, if so, which was working on it first. The committee keeps a list of which technologies have been awarded in the past. An extensive improvement in an existing technology could result in a new Emmy.

“One of the technologies we awarded recently, I guess maybe 2 years ago, was the blue LED light source,” Seidel says. “We were happy to see that just recently the one that we had selected for that award received a Nobel [Prize] in physics. I guess we’re doing something right if the Nobel committee tends to agree with some of our selections—which enabled everything from flat panel displays to large­screen outdoor displays. It was that type of technology that we felt had a significant impact on how people consume and enjoy television.”

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