Substance over sizzle

Peabody Awards 2012

Nothing wrong with the glitz and glamour of an Emmy or Golden Globe awards show. But for a chosen few, there’s something deeply satisfying about earning a prestigious accolade so far removed from the Hollywood mainstream.

The George Foster Peabody Awards, founded in 1940 and administered by the U. of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications, are the oldest electronic media kudos in the world and recognize excellence, distinguished achievement and meritorious public service.

David Simon, producer of HBO’s “Treme,” about life in post-Katrina New Orleans, says he is uncomfortable with awards culture but has a special affinity for the Peabody.

“It’s not about the popularity of the stars or the directors, it’s not even about production values,” he says. “What wins a Peabody is driven by storytelling. It came out of what I came out of: Journalism.

“I would value the Peabody just for paying attention to journalism. The fact that they note entertainment in the mix allows a different currency for how we evaluate television.”

The eclectic list of winners from television, radio and the Web includes more than three-dozen documentaries, news programs, scripted dramas and even comedy shows.

Epic fantasy fare strides alongside a quiz show; and the human condition is explored through lush dramatic productions and shoestring budgeted investigative reporting alike.

For the CBS Evening News report “Inside Syria,” network correspondent Clarissa Ward entered Syria alone posing as a tourist, using a small camera to chronicle the under-reported story of the struggle of citizens rising up against an oppressive government while the world sat largely silent.

“It was an important story to do and I was privileged to do it, but I’m not Mother Teresa,” Ward says of her series of reports. “I’m a journalist who wanted this story to be told.”

While Ward and most other Peabody winners viewed their subjects through the prism of current events, “Rebirth” producer Jim Whitaker cast his eye back to Sept. 11 to see how those impacted by the tragedy are coping.

Whitaker had no altruistic goals when he conceived of the project. He was coping with the death of his mother when he went to the Twin Towers site, where he imagined what it would look like in the future.

“I thought someone should capture this evolution as a historical and emotional record,” Whitaker says. “The most gratifying response is how this film has affected viewers personally and helped them get through great losses in their lives.”

Whitaker says he’s been inspired by all the Peabody Award winners, and is a particular fan of “Homeland” because the Showtime series reaches beyond normal expectations and goes deeper with characters that could have been stereotypes.

For “Homeland,” former “24” producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa adapted the Israeli TV series concept of a prisoner of war who may have turned to the enemy and, as the Peabody description states, becomes “a Rorschach test of post-9/11 doubts, fears and suspicions.”

“The Muslim community has been quite supportive and even the Marine Corps. We like to think it’s because we were able to walk the minefield being true to our characters,” Gansa says. “I hope we opened some people’s minds that there are two sides to all conflicts.”

While academic awards generally favor more grave subject matter, the Peabodys applaud efforts by comedy-driven series as well. “Parks and Recreation” may seem like an uncomplicated comedy on the surface, but never reduces its characters to caricatures.

“The award was incredibly meaningful to me because Leslie (played by Amy Poehler) is my fantasy of what someone in government should act like: Tireless, incorruptible and when she makes mistakes, she owns up to them,” producer Mike Schur says.

The focus may be on humor, but “Parks and Recreation” has made a few political statements along the way, including skewering Obama “birthers” and raising health concerns related to corn syrup.

“We try to take on these issues in our own little way, and winning the Peabody suggests our show is taken seriously and in a bigger category than a simple comedy show,” Schur says.

“Portlandia” showrunner Jonathan Krisel also feels the Peabody validates what he is trying to accomplish with the IFC sketch comedy series.

“The Peabody says there is artistic merit here, if not high ratings,” Krisel says. “They are looking for great stuff in the media universe and really dig deep to find it.”

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