Adam Sharp has a storied career in politics and media. He currently serves as the interim CEO of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience in politics and entertainment?
For more than 20 years, my career has always been about finding balance at the intersection of technology, politics, and media. My first real job was working for NBC while still in high school. After nearly a decade in different roles at the network, I left to work for the City of New York at Ground Zero after 9/11. A bit of freelancing followed, then the hunger to try public service. I served for 5 years as a U.S. Senate staffer, then missed TV and joined the executive team at C-SPAN. Leading digital efforts for the media outlet of record for our democracy seemed like the ultimate equilibrium of tech, politics and TV – and then Twitter called. I joined as their first hire in Washington, DC, and led news & politics for the platform through the 2016 election.
You were a regular on the DC press beat during the Obama administration. How have things changed since then?
Certainly, the speed of information. Twitter really developed into the lifeblood of the news cycle in the 2012 campaign. President Obama’s first term was still governed by the 24-hour news cycle, with cable news driving real-time developments. News on the web still had a bit of delay to it. Today, news breaks and reaches the consumer instantly, in their pocket, and reporters are expected to be filing all day, every day.
What are the dangers of labeling opinions you disagree with as “fake news”? What do you see as the main challenges the press faces when being confronted with this label?
The term “fake news” has become overly broad, applicable to deliberate disinformation campaigns by hostile foreign actors to news we simply don’t agree with or don’t want to be true. This dilution of the term clouds the importance of the threats we face and is best combat with specificity – calling out mis- and disinformation, poor reporting, sensationalism, editorializing, and other shades of bad content for what they are. It also requires highlighting examples of quality information. I’m very proud that on October 1, we’ll be recognizing some of that quality at the 39th annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards.
What was the process that led you to become the interim President of NATAS? Could this lead to the position on a non-interim basis?
I have been involved with NATAS my entire adult life. In 1996, I was one of the academy’s first scholarship winners. But the organization’s support was not limited to the check. I became an active member in the local NATAS chapter, got a job through one of the academy Trustees, and later joined the national scholarship committee myself. For the last 5 years, I have led the scholarship program, investing in the next generation of industry leaders. The new role allows me to give back in even more ways, and I’m not done yet!
How has your experience in the media prepared you for this position?
The television industry is at a distinct point of transition, with more and more programming coming from streaming platforms and solo creators, consumed on mobile devices not big-screen TVs. This creates a useful alignment between this job and my background in media, politics, and tech. I’ve worked within the traditional broadcast context, so I understand where we are coming from. I’ve worked at a paradigm-shifting tech company, so I understand where we are going. My political background helps me understand how industry and government need to adapt to the new landscape.
What are your primary duties as interim President of NATAS?
Much of the job is like any other management role, crafting budgets, overseeing staff, and making sure the team has the resources to be successful. The unique bits stem from the core areas of our purpose, working with our National Awards Committee to ensure our Emmy competitions are inclusive, relevant, and properly adapting to industry change. Then we are a TV producer ourselves, producing our awards ceremonies. In each case, I spend a lot of time thinking about what these parts of our being will look like in five, 10, 20 years time.
The 45th Annual Daytime Awards more than doubled the viewership from last year. To what do you attribute this incredible ratings increase?
Indeed they were the only major awards show to have substantial year-over-year growth. Ironically, we owe this success to the fact we were not on television.
While we still apply the legacy term “Daytime” to the competition, the programming is incredibly diverse, encompassing drama, game and courtroom shows, culinary and children’s content, and much more. We had a record number of entries this year, with that growth driven largely by digital producers.
We’ve followed the audience. The fans of these ”Daytime” shows are increasingly watching them on devices other than what we’d traditionally consider televisions, yet for many years our focus was in producing an awards ceremony consumed only there – and only in primetime, for that matter! The show has found a comfortable home now where this audience finds the great programming we are honoring.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing traditional television? How will you help NATAS meet these challenges?
The biggest challenge is one of disintermediation – the removal of blockers between content creators and consumers. For most of our history, there were natural technological limits to who was part of our community. To be “in television” was very expensive. You needed massive production resources, and then a network of transmitters to broadcast. Now a teenager with an iPhone has the same access to a global viewing audience as the biggest networks.
The line between audience and producer is getting narrower. New forms of programming are emerging. This challenge is the same as faced by most other content industries like news, music, and publishing, as well as many retail sectors.
For the networks, it means thinking of new ways to compete and break out of the traditional structures in which their position was reasonably protected.
For NATAS it means looking at how we embrace new entrants and new content forms into the space.
We recognize excellence, be it produced at a cost of tens of millions or pennies.
In what ways do you think television will change in the next decade and why?
The trend away from “time and date” viewing will continue for everything but live programming. This will in turn create more compelling demand for live programming, as it will remain the most social, shared viewing experience. The concept of “channels” and “networks” will continue to erode, making way for a more platform-dominated industry.
We’ll see how this impacts the friend-or-foe dynamics between the legacy three-letter networks and the new digital players. VR and AR are compelling prospects, but have a way to go technologically to become mainstream viewing experiences. Mobile AR experiences have the most breakout potential though, as we’ve seen in titles like Pokémon GO.
What is the role of traditional family values in today’s entertainment world? What factors affect the demand or lack thereof for family values programming?
Television has always been an effective mirror of our culture, providing an alternate lens for understanding the challenges we face. Programming that reflects family dynamics – the drama, humor, tragedy and triumph of our lives – will always be a big part of that.
What’s exciting about the current landscape is that we are no longer limited to an either-or, lowest-common-denominator choice of content. Free of the constraints of time and number of networks, there’s an opportunity in the streaming world for more options to flourish, for more voices to be heard. In the Daytime Emmy competition for example, quality children’s programming is growing rapidly, serving a hunger by kids and parents for good shows beyond what traditional platforms have provided.
If you could go back in time and be on set for the filming of any television show, what would you choose and why? (Bonus points if you tell us from whom you would get an autograph.)
The Ernie Kovacs shows, for their inventiveness. I guess he’d be the autograph. So much of television at that time was “radio on screen,” groundbreaking in that you could see a moving picture in your home, but no real change at first in the storytelling mechanism. Kovacs saw that the technology was a tool that could drive a story or deliver a punchline in a way unachievable on radio or even the live stage. We are seeing similar changes today. Early VR programming was simply “360 TV” or “3D TV,” largely indistinguishable from the traditional presentation. Now creators are getting better and better at leveraging the technology to advance the story in compelling ways.