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Peabody Awards Get Loud and Proud By Tweaking Long-Running Formula

The Peabody Awards are sporting a dramatically new look heading toward their 75th anniversary in 2016. The 74th edition, held May 31 at Cipriani Wall Street, signaled a departure from the decades of weekday luncheons at the Waldorf Astoria in midtown. 

“We have always quietly done our work, and now we’re trying to loudly do our work,” said Jeffrey Jones, director of the Peabodys. “We’re such a different awards program. We’re not interested in best acting or best adapted screenplay—we’re only interested in story.” 

This year, calendar 2014 stories from a broad range of creators are being recognized—everything from FX’s limited series Fargo and British anthology Black Mirror to the podcast Serial and local TV reports including KVUE’s on the Texas mental-health system. Honorees were announced weeks ago (live on Good Morning America), so the night isn’t a buildup of suspense over who will win but rather more of a brief spotlight for deserving work. In recent years, 40 awards have been handed out and speeches have tended to run no more than a minute or two, a trend that will likely continue. 

Roots in Radio 

Only the Pulitzers and the Academy Awards have a longer history than the Peabodys, which began in 1940s as a radio-centric affair that lacked today’s patina of showbiz. (One award in that inaugural year went to “WBAP Radio for a Series of Prison Broadcasts.”) Although there is plenty of merit to such distinguished, deep roots, the organization started to sense it was getting a bit too set in its ways. 

One reason is the marketplace—televised awards shows have put up strong numbers, from second-tier fare like the Billboard Music Awards and the Hollywood Film Awards to top-shelf attractions the Grammys, Emmys and Oscars. The Peabodys are in the second of a three-year deal with Pivot, which is creating an edited version to air June 21. 

The TV version, hosted by Fred Armisen, will highlight backstage interviews and the comingling of notables that makes events like the White House Correspondents Dinner a top draw. 

“It’s a marriage of a lot of things,” Jones said. “Amy Schumer [an honoree for her Comedy Central show] is as political as a lot of the news documentaries. Last year we had writers from Comedy Central in the green room saying, ‘We want to talk to those guys,’” meaning a Seattle TV station contingent. “Louis C.K. told me, ‘I typically hate these things, but this one is cool.’ He knows that people in the room are getting a shot at recognition for something that changes the world.” 

Downtown Changes the Vibe 

New downtown venue Cipriani Wall Street “has a lot more energy and pop,” Jones added. “We combine that with an entertainer host in Fred, who brings a youthful energy to the celebration.” 

Leaning into multiplatform and international fare is another way the Peabodys plan to boost their relevance. The organization is in active development on a digital platform that would enable viewers to see all 40 award winners. 

The explosion of TV, online video content and podcasting, along with an increased emphasis on enterprise reporting on local stations, means steady interest in being recognized. Last year, the 18 Peabody judges (a cross-section from government, academia and the media world) sifted through some 1,200 entries. 

Recognizing the Peabodys’ unique place in the awards ecosystem, Jones is fond of quoting Walter Cronkite’s view on them: “You count your Emmys, you cherish your Peabodys.”