Keeper of the Peabody Awards

At a time when media awards are handed out like lollipops at the bank, the Peabody Awards remains one of the highest honors in radio, cable and broadcast TV. Bestowed by a 16-member board administered through the University of Georgia, the Peabody’s only criterion is excellence, says Program Director Horace Newcomb. The committee will hand out 35 awards June 4 at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The recipients include scripted fare (NBC’s Friday Night Lights), documentary (HBO’s Baghdad ER) and broadcast news (the late Ed Bradley’s 60 Minutes report on the Duke rape case). It was a particularly strong year for local news, with New Haven’s WTNH and Indianapolis’ WISH honored for ongoing investigations into defective parts in Blackhawk helicopters and inadequate padding in military helmets, respectively. And, for the first time in the Peabody’s 66-year history, the committee bestowed awards on Websites The Washington Post’s Being a Black Man and the UK’s Channel 4’s FourDocs. Newcomb talked to B&C’s Marisa Guthrie about the winners, the jury sessions and where the medium is headed.

Were this year’s submissions on par with previous years?

It was a terrific year. It’s always, we can say, an embarrassment of riches, but it’s an incredible opportunity for us because the way the Peabody works is, everybody has always selected what they think is their best work. So we’re looking for the best of the best. We had some tough calls because there’s so much good stuff in the submission list.

Was it a strong year for entertainment programming?

We felt like we had some outstanding entertainment programs, and certainly we fell in line with some other critical judgments. A lot of people have said that Friday Night Lights is an outstanding program, regardless of its audience [size], and we felt the same way. It’s about much more than football. It’s about a sense of community and a sense of place. We look for richness that goes beyond formula. And with something like Scrubs, we found a show that’s been on the air for a long time. It just continues to be inventive, and that’s another thing we like to see, something that breaks out of the mold, on occasion, and really works with the form.

Those are two shows that have struggled to attract large audiences. Is there a paradox between quality and popularity?

Are we the kiss of death? I don’t think there’s a paradox there. I think that the Peabody, over the years, has recognized a lot of popular programs: Law & Order, The Sopranos, The West Wing. We like to see people take chances and those shows do that.

We’re in the midst of an overwhelming “celebrification” of news. Has the news’ submission been as strong as in years past?

I was really heartened this year by the local stuff that we saw. Some years it seems pretty thin. This year, we saw a number of really hard-hitting stories that people had followed for months. I think there are some local stations out there that are encouraging people to respond in their own way, perhaps, to the celebrity aspects. Not to say they don’t do it as well, but I think there’s some important stuff getting done.

When did the Web become a consideration?

When I came in 2001, the board had already decided to do that. I don’t think it’s been greeted with universal approval. People are very cautious about it. Are we evaluating content or design or navigatability? And in some way, we’re doing all of those things.

You’ve witnessed many changes in the medium throughout your career. Where do you think it’s going?

We are clearly in a moment of uncertainty and transition as great as any I’ve seen. And for me, it is a major social and cultural shift. Television is a cultural forum, a central site where people can go and confront things that they agree or disagree with. Now television [is] more like a newsstand or a bookstore, you don’t have to look at things that other people are looking at at the same time. People can pick their own categories and make their own libraries, and it’s a very, very different social and cultural experience. The segmentation of the audience and fragmentation of the offerings is taking us to a different era completely.

On the one hand, it’s great. You’ve got many many options. On the other hand, what do we share?