Primetime fare with conscience

TV Academy Honors 2012

The Emmys might be more high profile, but it’s another Academy of Television Arts & Sciences-backed kudofest that’s proving how powerful the medium can really be.

Since its inception in 2008, the Television Academy Honors has celebrated “television with a conscience,” programs that not only entertain but also shine a spotlight on socially relevant issues. The fifth annual ceremony, scheduled for tonight at the Beverly Hills Hotel and hosted by Dana Delany, will toast seven programs from the past year that explored such weighty topics as breast cancer (Lifetime’s “Five”), sports-related head injuries (“Harry’s Law”) and the effectiveness of the civil- justice system (HBO’s “Hot Coffee”). The syndicated “Dr. Oz Show,” TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age,” FX’s “Rescue Me,” and PBS’ “Women, War & Peace” round out this year’s slate.

“I joke that it’s when television uses its power to do good over evil,” says Delany, who’s emceeing the event for the fourth straight year. “Often, television can be irresponsible, but I feel like everybody (who’s honored) is in it for the right reason. It’s a moving evening about humanity and making the world a better place — not in a treacly, sophomoric way, but in a real, substantial one.”

Adds Television Cares Committee co-chair John Shaffner: “Television is a medium driven by the public appetite to a great extent. It’s important to honor people and companies that put a commitment into superceding that and somehow manage to entertain and enlighten at the same time.”

Striking that delicate balance can be difficult, as can the process of determining which programs should be honored. A committee comprising 20 Academy members meets for six months each year, watching DVDs of every submitted entry — 114 this year — and often passionately debating which programs deserve to make the final cut.

While there’s no set number of recipients — there have been as many as nine, in 2008 — the committee is mindful of diversity in terms of both topics and format (think not only documentaries but also fictionalized series). It makes for an eclectic mix, with past honorees ranging from films on the death penalty and Alzheimer’s to a “Friday Night Lights” episode about abortion and a “CSI” installment that explored racial prejudice.

Ultimately, according to co-chair Lynn Roth, the selection process is, unlike those of most awards shows, refreshingly free of politics.

“We don’t have to worry about what networks are involved or how many people are watching a show,” says Roth. “We don’t care if a show has been cancelled. It’s purely based on the excellence of the filmmaking and on the strength of how the message is affecting its audience.”

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The Oprah-approved chatfest was selected for its far-reaching commitment to health and wellness. “What Dr. Oz does is almost like a public health announcement,” says ceremony host Dana Delany. “We have so much information in our world, and he sort of distills it all.”

Lifetime’s anthology of five short films, directed by Jennifer Aniston, Alicia Keys, Demi Moore, Patty Jenkins and Penelope Spheeris, took a powerful look at the impact a breast cancer diagnosis can have on both women and men.

The “Head Games” episode of the David E. Kelley legal series focused on a case concerning the death of a high school football player who suffered a fatal concussive blow on the field. Says Roth, “It took an all-American sport and looked at how dangerous it is.”

This documentary from Susan Saladoff, a former public interest lawyer, explores how financially driven corporate interests shaped the public’s perception of four seemingly frivolous lawsuits, including the “McDonald’s coffee case.”

The cancelled TNT series is being honored for “Let the Sunshine In,” an episode in which its middle-aged protagonists get a group colonoscopy, ultimately driving home the importance of annual checkups.

The FX series, which recently wrapped its esteemed seven-season run, was chosen for its “344” episode, in which Denis Leary’s NYC firefighter character struggles with how to properly memorialize his fallen comrades on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

The five-part docu series focuses on women in conflict areas around the world who have fought for their countries and rights, and explores their often-unsung involvement in peace-building.

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