Newcomb Brings a ‘Gentility’

May 16, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Special to TelevisionWeek

Horace Newcomb, the Peabody Awards director since 2001 and a renowned television scholar, did not see a TV set until his 10th birthday. His father, a mailman-turned-electronics-repairman, lugged home a snazzy model in the trunk of the family sedan one day in 1952. The new contraption changed the young boy’s life.

“I grew up in Mississippi, about 50 miles south of Memphis, so we could get a very snowy image from the stations there,” he said.

Snow or no, Mr. Newcomb spent many an hour in front of the tube watching the Friday night fights, Milton Berle and “Howdy Doody.”

Although he described himself as “not the best of students” in high school, he performed well enough to get into Mississippi College and later earned a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to the University of Chicago, where he studied literature.

Mr. Newcomb taught at colleges in Iowa, Michigan and Maryland and briefly wrote a daily television column for the Baltimore Sun, a job that caused the occasional squabble with his wife and kids.

“We always had just one television set and often argued about what to watch. Usually, I won, because I had to write about it the next day,” he said.

A prolific author, Mr. Newcomb penned his first book, “TV: The Most Popular Art,” in 1974. It was a work that almost didn’t make it to bookstore shelves. His publisher chose to place on the book’s cover a caricature of “All in the Family” patriarch Archie Bunker, portrayed by actor Carroll O’Connor, a decision that drew a cease-and-desist demand from lawyers at CBS. Both author and publisher ignored the threat, and the book remained in print for a decade.

Mr. Newcomb also wrote one episode of “Magnum, P.I.” in 1987, but the show was canceled before his script was produced.

An academic at heart, Mr. Newcomb landed at the University of Texas at Austin, where he spent 23 years before Peabody came calling in 2001, following the untimely death of longtime Awards Director Barry Sherman.

“The circumstances were very bittersweet,” he said. “Probably the Peabody Awards was the one thing that could have gotten me to move.”

Outgoing Peabody Board chair Marlene Sanders credits Mr. Newcomb with bringing a Southern gentility to the sometimes lively debate over what’s worthy for Peabody consideration and what’s not.

“He is good-natured and genial,” she said. “He brings a different perspective, which is good because many of us tend to be mostly East and West Coast people, so he kind of balances that out.”

Mr. Newcomb still watches a lot of TV-about three hours each night. He presides over a TiVo-enabled household but said he uses the device mainly to zap the ads that interrupt his leisure viewing.

“We like the British mysteries on BBC America, but they are so chopped up by commercials, it’s a lot easier to watch them with the TiVo,” he said. He said he also watches “Nip/Tuck,” “Boston Legal” and “all the series on HBO.”

Shaping the future of the Peabody Awards probably will involve some creative financing, Mr. Newcomb said. Despite its stature, the program operates on a shoestring budget without a formal endowment. That may have to change, but he’s not sure where funding will come from, he said.

“We would never take any funding from the industry, because of the potential conflict of interest,” he said.

Horace Newcomb

Title: Director, Peabody Awards, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia; Lambdin Kay distinguished professor

How long in current position: Four years

Year of birth: 1942

Place of birth: Jackson, Miss.

Who knew? Mr. Newcomb makes a mean tajine, a spicy Moroccan stew