Highest Honor Goes to Oprah

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Oprah Winfrey’s being honored by the National Association of Broadcasters with the organization’s Distinguished Service Award will place her in the company of past winners who include the very founders of broadcasting, leading newscasters and station owners as well as other media personalities. While she is not the first woman so honored, nor the first African American, she is the first person recognized for service primarily in daytime television.
“Oprah has revolutionized daytime television,” said Edward Fritts, the NAB’s president and CEO. “And [she] has brought a higher level of compassion and activism to the genre. Her contributions not only to broadcasting but to society at large make her a perfect fit for this award.”
The Distinguished Service Award, which this year will be presented at the NAB conference’s all-industry opening dinner April 19, was first presented in 1953, when Gen. David Sarnoff, the longtime head of RCA, was honored. He was followed in 1954 by his chief competitor, CBS founder William S. Paley.
Since that time NAB has recognized leaders from a wide expanse of media, including former U.S. presidents (Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan) figures involved in religious programming (the Rev. Billy Graham) and the greatest of newscasting giants (Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley).
Bob Hope was the first person primarily known as a performer to be honored (1963). Since that time, few leaders outside of the broadcast corporate offices, the Federal Communications Commission or various news departments have been named, another exception being TV personality and producer Dick Clark in 1993.
Catherine Liggins Hughes, founder of the Radio One Network, became the first African American honored by NAB when she was recognized in 2001. Other women who have received the Distinguished Service Award are Barbara Walters (1997) and last year’s recipient, Cokie Roberts.
“That Oprah Winfrey fits right into the remarkable list of Service Award winners seems obvious to us,” said Dennis Wharton, NAB senior VP of communications.
“If she’s not the most influential personality in television of the last 10 to 12 years, she’s right up there in any argument about who is,” Mr. Wharton said. “She’s had as enormous an impact on the public as anyone in broadcasting history.”
Ms. Winfrey’s resume boasts an array of recognition for extraordinary achievement, including the first Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, presented in 2002 at the 54th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. Ms. Winfrey also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences at the 1998 Daytime Emmys.
Roots in News
While Ms. Winfrey has spent more than 20 years hosting daytime talk programs, first locally in Baltimore and Chicago and then on her national program, which premiered in 1986, she has roots in radio and news. After a short period on a Nashville radio station, she became the youngest person-at age 19-and the first African American to anchor a newscast, when Nashville’s WTVF-TV hired her. She later moved to Baltimore to anchor the six o’clock newscast on WJZ-TV.
NAB’s Distinguished Service Award is given annually to someone who “has made a significant and lasting contribution to the American system of broadcasting by virtue of singular achievement or continuing service for or on behalf of the industry,” according to the organization’s guidelines.
Additionally, the recipient must be available to attend the NAB’s convention and be willing to make an address to the assembly.
Nominations for the Distinguished Service Award come from the membership. The process begins with a ballot mailed to members in the fall preceding the convention. The association’s executive committee then “signs off on this,” Mr. Wharton said.