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Making Their Lists, Checking Them Twice

Dec 18, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Allison J. Waldman

Special to TelevisionWeek

The month of December is all about snow, Santa, ski trips and resolutions for the year ahead. But for news professionals and television journalists, this is the time of the year for all that and something more. The broadcast news awards loom ahead, and December is a chance for producers, writers and newscasters to look back on 2006 and evaluate which reports, episodes, series and films are worthy entries for the Peabodys, Emmys, duPonts and other prestigious industry awards.

“It’s a very busy new year,” said Howard Marcantel, director of competitions planning for Discovery Networks U.S. “Right now we’re working on our Peabody Awards submissions.”

The entry deadlines for many of the top awards are in January, including the Peabodys, the George Polk, the Silver Gavel and the Robert F. Kennedy awards. News organizations are usually aware of the dates and have been thinking for a while about what to submit. John Reiss, executive producer of “NBC Nightly News,” keeps track of potential entries all year long. “What we do is every time we see a piece that may be award-worthy, I mark it down in my computer. There is also a producer on the show responsible just for awards,” he said.

Mr. Marcantel, who has 14 networks at Discovery to monitor for possible award-winning material, has adopted another methodology. “We have an internal review process,” he said. “We’ll send out the call for entries to all our networks and ask them to make an initial pass through all of their programming that fell into the eligibility period for the award and send us their laundry list. We then sit down with a handful of folks here and look at the programs, look at the recommendations and then decide what we think strategically makes the best sense before we move forward.”

Big Stories Dominate

In some years, the choice of what to submit is quite apparent. In 2005, Katrina coverage dominated submissions. “Part of award winning is you have to have a story to tell. I can promise you we’re not going to do as well in 2006 as we did in 2005, and that wasn’t because we weren’t as good. It was simply a year without Katrina,” said Mr. Reiss. “It’s just the way it works. There’s nothing like Katrina in 2006.”

For “Nightly News,” the work the program submitted on Katrina was very strong and appealed to the judges. “It turned out to be a huge year for us. We won a Peabody, the Emmy, four Murrows, we won the Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Gerald Loeb Award for business reporting. Basically we swept, and we still await the duPonts.”

The war in Iraq and the war on terrorism remain major stories that are certain to be found in the award entries. “`Off to War,’ a Discovery Times Channel series, did really well for us,” Mr. Marcantel said of the film about a National Guard unit in Arkansas being shipped to Iraq. “It’s actually just won the IDA [Independent Documentary Association] Distinguished Documentary Award for a Limited Series, in addition to several other prestigious news organization awards.”

In addition to the major awards, such as the Emmys, Murrows and Polks, many prizes are given for reports and programs focused on a specific genre. The Society of Environmental Journalists, for example, honors reporting and stories on environmental issues. The Harry Chapin Media Awards, formerly the World Hunger Media Awards, were created in 1982 to encourage the media to “tell the story of hunger and poverty.”

The Right Entry

A key thought that goes into the awards entry process is determining which stories to submit for which awards. “What might work for an Emmy may not work for the Murrows,” Mr. Reiss said. In addition, trying to win over the judges with the sheer volume of a news team’s reporting can be detrimental.

“With the Peabodys and the duPonts, it’s kind of tough because there are no rules. You don’t want to overwhelm them with 14 hours of material because they’re not going to watch,” he said. “I think one of the things you always have to be careful about is that there are certain stories that may be very impressive to the newsroom, but not really outside there. We think they’re great because we know how hard it was to get it done, but those aren’t necessarily award winners.”

Overall, the impact and importance of news and television journalism awards are subjective. Chris Slaughter, assistant news director at WWL-TV, the CBS affiliate in New Orleans, recalled winning a Peabody for the work his team did during Katrina as a humbling experience. “We didn’t expect that. Nowhere along the line did we think, `Wow, we’ve done a good job covering the storm. We could win all kinds of awards.”‘

“We never put the cart before the horse,” Mr. Marcantel said. “I would love if that worked because it would make our jobs so much easier. No, that never happens.”

Brian Williams, “NBC Nightly News” anchorman and a multiple award winner, chafed at the thought that his crew might have braved danger in New Orleans during the worst of Katrina because they hoped they would win an Emmy or an Edward R. Murrow Award. “My voice shakes talking about [awards] because I was not out there in that mud and water looking for awards or looking for compliments; none of us were,” he said.

More than just a feather in the cap, though, awards can be a valuable asset in promoting and marketing a network or news organization. “It’s a nice third-party endorsement for the quality of our programming,” said Mr. Marcantel. “We often create these shows with co-production partners like ABC News or NBC News, and it helps with those relationships. In addition, it sends a nice message to our distribution partners and viewers.”

“The advantages to winning an award are really psychological, but that’s a big deal,” said Mr. Reiss. “When the Emmy statuettes arrived here people were excited. A lot of people went home with an Emmy. It means something. Friends, civilians know what an Emmy is. There’s some value to the general public; that is why NBC and ABC spent a lot of promo time in our broadcasts saying, `Hey, look what we won.’ Viewers, especially with respect to the Emmys, recognize what these awards are.”

The flip side, of course, is being passed over. “I’m not going to say people aren’t disappointed. Anyone that dedicates themselves to creating the highest-quality program and hopes for recognition, at the end of the day, there’s going to be some level of disappointment,” said Mr. Marcantel. “But everyone knows the process is subjective and for whatever reasons your show may be overlooked. It’s not the end of the world. We’ll try again next year.”

So whether this upcoming season is kind or cruel, the bottom line is to do the work without thinking about whether it will be honored. Then, if it is, enjoy the moment. “Awards are an imperfect way to judge excellence,” Mr. Reiss said. “That said, it’s terrific to get that kind of recognition from your peers.”