By LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES — Twenty years ago, cable TV finally broke down the Emmy barrier that kept it from competing with broadcasting. Until the 1987-88 TV season, when HBO’s ‘‘Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam’’ was honored, cable channels settled for CableAce trophies.
It’s a different story for today’s newest media — the digital programming available on the Internet and phone — with a handful of Emmys already claimed by Web shows including the charity concert Live 8 on AOL. Whether there will be more honors any time soon, however, is as fuzzy as a black-and-white picture tuned with rabbit ears. ...
The companies scrambling for ways to profitably mate TV and the Web are glad to submit digital fare for Emmy consideration; the fear and loathing broadcasters had for nascent cable has no place in this synergistic world.
But the TV academies that dispense Emmys are at odds over the issue, with the dispute even landing in court. The East Coast group wants to accelerate the move toward broadband awards while the West Coast one favors a deliberative pace.
‘‘I urged our people that if we don’t recognize the future of television it will pass us by and someone else will recognize it,’’ said Peter Price, president and chief executive officer of the New York-based National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS).
On Tuesday, the video-sharing site YouTube did just that, announcing its first YouTube Video Award winners that included the online series ‘‘Ask a Ninja’’ and the pop group OK Go’s ‘‘Here It Goes Again’’ music video.
The Los Angeles-based Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) is unswayed.
‘‘Digital certainly should be honored. It’s a new, emerging part of the television landscape,’’ said Dick Askin, chairman and CEO. ‘‘What we want to do is figure out how to honor excellence in this new medium and still be consistent with the standards of excellence we’ve always applied to quality programming.’’
The issue flared in 2006 when NATAS added a broadband award to each of the categories it administers: daytime, news, public service and sports programming. The response was surprisingly strong, Price said, with the majority of entries from ‘‘digital divisions of big companies — including ABC.com, NationalGeorgraphic.com’’ and a variety of newspapers and magazines.
One nominee, based on Fox’s ‘‘24’’ and made for mobile phones, proved disquieting to ATAS, which has oversight of the prime-time Emmys handed out each fall.
‘‘We were questioned by colleagues on the West Coast, ‘Isn’t that prime-time programming repurposed for digital form? Shouldn’t there be lines drawn here?’’’ Price recalled.
NATAS responded that boundaries were being observed. It maintained that the brief cell phone episode differed from the TV show and that daytime and prime-time distinctions don’t hold given the fluid accessibility of broadband.
The academies were negotiating to resolved the broadband issue and were to bring recommendations to their boards. But after NATAS announced additional broadband awards with Web site MySpace.com as sponsor, ATAS aggressively shifted gears this month.
It submitted an arbitration request to the American Arbitration Association and filed suit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles for a temporary injunction barring NATAS from creating new digital content awards.
On Tuesday, Judge Manuel Real dismissed the request, ruling that the matter should be settled through arbitration. ATAS responded that it was ‘‘optimistic that this matter will be resolved fairly and quickly.’’
The NATAS chief was blunter. ‘‘I think the way to find opportunities to resolve this is to sit down without a pack of lawyers or arbitrators, figure out what you’re going to do and do it,’’ Price said Wednesday.
The two groups have to reach an accord, said Tom O’Neil, author of ‘‘The Emmys’’ and host of the Goldderby.com awards Web site. ‘‘YouTube has proven that TV and the Internet have finally joined. The TV academies’ challenge is how to recognize it,’’ he said.
Not all agree. Dan Harmon has a foot both in the Internet world, as co-creator of Channel101.com, and in the traditional TV world with a new VH1 series, ‘‘Acceptable.TV,’’ based on his Web site showcasing abbreviated shows.
To Harmon, the idea of bestowing Emmys on Web fare is absurd on several levels.
‘‘Emmys are about this kind of 60-year-old television studio system and the heroes who do things within that system to get quality content onto the box,’’ he said. ‘‘The idea of having a special category in which they award themselves for having a lower budget and making content that doesn’t deserve to be on TV ... that’s what they’re talking about with the ‘24’ episode and things like that.’’
Besides, the online world and awards are antithetical, he said: While awards show are a way for traditional media to get feedback, ‘‘the Internet is instantaneous.’’
‘‘The Internet represents the breakdown of the paradigm in which we were able to categorize media. So why give it an Emmy? They (the TV academies) are scared of looking like they’re going extinct.’’
ATAS chief Askin doesn’t envision that scenario.
‘‘We’ll be celebrating our 60th birthday next year, and the Television Academy has done a very good job of changing with the times,’’ he said. ‘‘The important thing is that the academy recognizes that digital content is a very dynamic part of the business and will grow in importance as we go forward.’’
Whatever the future of the Emmys, Harmon doesn’t deny their current allure. He and his 30ish colleagues at Channel101 stage an annual mock awards show that, it seems, isn’t entirely a joke: Harmon has dreams of someday receiving a trophy for his TV work.
‘‘This generation has a lot of love for the medium and we’re not going to shake it. ... I wouldn’t mind getting an Emmy, believe me. That’s one I want before I die,’’ he said.