They are the programs on television that are most effective in creating awareness and often social change around important issues, whether they be pure entertainment or documentary in form — or anywhere along the spectrum. Sometimes they are hard to watch, whether they elicit tears, or discomfort — and sometimes, nervous laughter. As a general rule, they are enlightening and challenging.
Programs like “Transparent,” “Virunga” and “Paycheck to Paycheck” represent some of the more than 150 entries that are submitted every year for recognition at the Television Academy Honors.
Those three programs, along with ”black-ish,” “The Normal Heart” and “E:60” received honors that were handed out last week, for the eighth year, in ceremonies hosted by Dana Delany at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills.
This year’s six honorees were chosen from a wide swath of shows on broadcast, cable and digital, with their subject matter ranging from AIDS to poverty to child abuse and the struggle involved in surviving a terrorist attack.
“These are programs that raise awareness and important questions – they may even raise the ire in some,” said Bruce Rosenblum, the Television Academy’s chairman and CEO. “Tonight we honor their creators and the messages they bring us, for we believe that these programs are exceptional, thought-provoking and ultimately powerful motivators of change.”
Rosenblum complimented the committee and the efforts of two former Academy chairs, Dick Askin and John Shaffner, as well as Lynn Roth, who formerly chaired the Television Cares committee. “It was their hard work and tireless commitment that gave life and form to the shared vision of recognizing programs that address socially important, often difficult subjects with honesty, clarity and courage.”
First up for recognition, adding to the huge amount it has already received, was HBO’s “The Normal Heart,” which chronicles the sacrifices and the triumphs of the early days of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Starring Mark Ruffalo as a gay writer who begins to investigate the growing number of unexplained deaths of gay men at that time, the telefilm is based on Larry Kramer’s 1985 play of the same name.
“This was a labor of love for Ryan Murphy and Larry Kramer, who pulled it together with a fantastic cast,” said Tara Grace, VP of HBO films. “It was an opportunity to inform, educate and entertain. Many people did not even know about this before they saw the film.”
Netflix’s “Virunga” takes viewers across the world to the heart of Africa – to the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a 3,000 square mile protected area that is home to a wide range of species including the critically endangered mountain gorillas, of which there are about 800 left.
The Oscar-nominated documentary tells the story of four people including the park’s chief warden and an investigative journalist and their extraordinary efforts to protect the park and its resources, even as oil exploration and poaching continue to take a devastating toll on animal populations.
Having just marked the second anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, ESPN’s E:60 “Dream on: Stories of Boston’s Strongest” brings to vivid life the struggle for survival of five of the more than 260 people injured during the two bomb blasts in April, 2013. One of them, Marc Fucarile, had the distinction of being hospitalized the longest after losing his right leg and suffering severe burns to his left leg.
“It tells you how people were able to fight back and never give up,” said Bob Woodruff, who narrated the documentary, which was executive produced by Andy Tennant. “It tells you something about the people of Boston – and our country.”
HBO’s documentary “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert” delves into the circumstances of a single mother raising three young children who earns $9.49 an hour as a certified nursing assistant, struggling to make ends meet and not being able to afford health insurance.
“Poverty isn’t what you think it looks like,” said Maria Shriver, who took the stage with Ms. Gilbert. “It’s so moving to me to inform, inspire and entertain and to be in the company of all these honorees. I hope it encourages more people to do these kind of projects.”
“Black-ish,” the ABC comedy, received the honor for an episode called “Crime and Punishment.” It explores the question many parents debate as they face situations in which their children misbehave: When does discipline become child abuse?
“The conversation is what makes this show so special,” said creator Kenya Barris, who accepted the award in the company of cast members including Laurence Fishburne, Tracee Ellis Ross and the young actors who play the children on the show. “We try to be sincere and honest. Thankfully, it’s resonated.”
“Transparent,” whose second season will soon be released on Amazon, also portrays a family who is trying to live authentically.
“We are doing something more than TV, more than making money,” said creator Jill Soloway. “Amazon said ‘do your thing.’ We’re not answering to a committee or trying to sell something. It’s an honor to take on the mantle of being part of a civil rights movement for transgender people that is just getting started.”