On the Watch for Excellence

May 16, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Special to TelevisionWeek

Veteran CBS News correspondent and “60 Minutes” co-Editor Morley Safer, himself a three-time Peabody winner, will host a luncheon ceremony at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria today, honoring the 32 winners of the 64th Annual George Foster Peabody Awards.

This year’s awards include an Individual Peabody for Grant Tinker, the founder and former president of MTM Enterprises and the former chairman and CEO of NBC. “The writers and producers who honed their craft at MTM have gone on to create some of the greatest programs in television history and, in their turn, have afforded others the same creative freedom provided by Grant Tinker,” the Peabody Board noted.

Institutional winners run the gamut from radio programs to local TV investigative team reports to the HBO series “Deadwood,” which judges praised for “twisting the conventions of the Western in an excruciating knot of history and imagined events.”

WFAA-TV in Dallas and WTVF in Nashville, Tenn., garnered Peabody nods for their investigative work. Broadcast networks were nearly shut out, though CBS is being honored for “60 Minutes II’s” coverage of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

That award raised some eyebrows: It cites the work of producer Mary Mapes, who was fired from CBS News in January-weeks before the Peabody announcement-for her work on last year’s “60 Minutes II” report about President Bush’s National Guard service.

While it may lack the pomp and circumstance of the Emmy and the familiarity of the Pulitzer, a Peabody Award is considered the gold standard by those involved in electronic media. The award signifies excellence, pure and simple. Unlike most other competitions, there are no categories, no hard and fast criteria for earning the award. Nor is the Peabody Board obligated to bestow a specific number of awards in any year, although it usually averages 30 or so.

“We are most often described as a journalism award, which we are not,” said Horace Newcomb, who has directed the Peabody Awards since 2001. “The great majority have gone to journalism, public service campaigns and so forth, but high-level entertainment has always been a consideration.”

It was a snub by the Pulitzer organization that led to the formation of the Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. The National Association of Broadcasters had hoped to create a Pulitzer Prize for radio, an idea rebuffed in 1938 by the board that administered the Pulitzers. Radio programming apparently was deemed unworthy of such consideration.

The late Lambdin Kay, then general manager of WSB Radio in Atlanta, took the idea of starting a separate radio award to friends at the University of Georgia, who coincidentally were looking for a way to honor George Peabody, a native of Columbus, Ga., and a University of Georgia benefactor.

Walter Cronkite, who hosted the 2002 Peabody Awards ceremony, took a good-natured swipe at his print brethren for missing an opportunity.

“We in the broadcasting industry rarely refer to the Peabodys as broadcasting’s Pulitzer Prize,” he said. “Oh, no, it is clear to us that the vaunted Pulitzers are simply the print’s Peabody,” he said.

The Peabody screening process is unusual. Each year’s entries, which typically number between 1,000 and 1,500, are reviewed initially by committees consisting of faculty, staff and students of the University of Georgia. The reviewers pass along their recommendations to members of the Peabody Board, who make the final selections.

“The process is very laborious, incredibly time-consuming,” said Marlene Sanders, a 35-year veteran of ABC and CBS news and the outgoing chair of the Peabody Board. “Each of us starts getting these boxes full of tapes in the fall, and they keep coming. And coming.”

The board may also, on its own initiative, select additional programs or individuals for an award. Members have bestowed numerous awards to individuals over the years, including Rod Serling, Orson Welles, Charles Kuralt, Norman Lear, Oprah Winfrey and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

Mr. Newcomb said the dearth of broadcast network winners in recent years reflects the changing face of the television business.

“Every year is different, but we are representative of the state of the industry. There is just so much material out there, and it’s not always on broadcast television,” he said.

Ms. Sanders offered a far blunter point of view.

“Jon Stewart is getting an award [his second, for ‘The Daily Show With Jon Stewart’ on Comedy Central], and we are citing his political coverage? Where the heck was everybody else? We could not find anything that was very good, and to me that’s a terrible indictment of our business,” she said.

The Peabodys are considered among the most difficult awards to earn. Entries from one-person radio news departments are tossed into the same barrel with those of major networks and production houses. That, winners said, makes them especially noteworthy.

“[Winning a Peabody was] one of the greatest honors of my career, and I know those who worked on the stories felt the same way,” said Barbara Maushard, news director at WISN-TV in Milwaukee, which won in 2003 for an investigative series on faulty smoke alarms.

“The folks who worked on this investigation got into this business to make a difference. Winning a Peabody is a powerful way to acknowledge such work,” Ms. Maushard said.

Even entries that don’t win take their place in history. The Peabody archives house nearly 60,000 entries and form one of the richest repositories of historical sight and sound. Students and volunteers are working to inventory and label the collection.