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Peabody board casts wide net for excellence

Winner's include 'The Good Wife' 'Temple Grandin'

Anyone who peruses the list of this year’s winners of the Peabody Awards might reasonably wonder how in the world the group behind the prizes actually functions.

After all, this is a list that not only includes such well-known network shows as “The Good Wife” and cable series like “Men of a Certain Age” and “Justified,” but also such docs as “Burma VJ,” containing surreptitiously shot video of protests against Burma’s brutal military dictatorship, and “The Moth Radio Hour,” featuring spoken-word storytelling produced by Public Radio Exchange and Atlantic Public Media.

The latter is a pointed reminder that the Peabodys began 70 years ago as a means of honoring the best in radio reporting and entertainment, but the sheer range, genres and sensibilities reflected in the winners’ round-up suggests an awards selection committee casting an extremely wide net.

The keys to understanding the Peabody board’s process are its unusual features: Unlike, say, a film festival jury that must select winners in pre-set categories, this group has no such mandate. In addition, consensus rules; if an entry has just one opposition vote, it can’t win. Finally, the board takes its time: Two four-day sessions in both Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are followed by a longer, final session at the U. of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications in Athens, the Peabody’s permanent home base.

An initial pool of 1,000 submissions on average — ranging from high-end cable series to local news stations’ reports to radio and Internet productions — is filtered down to around 200 by screening committees before the board settles on 40-50 winners.

Members are selected for a single three-year term, which may include one additional term, and rotate out on an annual basis so that no two consecutive boards contain identical memberships.

Perhaps most unusual of all is the Peabodys’ exceptionally general yet rigorously adhered-to criterion for “excellence.” As Horace Newcomb, Peabody chair and board member, explains: “this means excellence on its own terms.”

Excellence appears in many forms, from edification to outrageous comedy.

After all, “South Park” has won a Peabody.

Personal taste always roils under the surface, and this may be where things get really interesting. Several board members contacted for this report reflected on these human factors that ultimately drive and guide their choices.

“We look very specifically at the artistry and ambition of every submission,” says Janet Murray, director of graduate studies for the School of Literature, Communi ca tion and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, “and we find evidence of craftsmanship and originality that may take vastly different forms but still reflects the same high level of ambition. ‘Justified’ or ‘The Good Wife’ or ‘Radio Lab’ are very different from one another, but they are all highly original, ambitious examples of insightful and compelling storytelling.”

“The underlying principle is that the works that win aren’t only competent or well-crafted — they’re exemplary, exceptional and deserving of wide attention,” says AOL television critic Maureen Ryan. Any winner, says former Variety and Hollywood Reporter editor Elizabeth Guider, “has to have moved me and made me think.”

Judging art and journalism, however, can be different matters.

While British Film Institute senior curator of television Steve Bryant looks “for originality and visual flair” in the dramatic work, TV historian and former network exec Tim Brooks says some board members “will argue in favor of advocacy pieces and others will prefer more traditionally balanced pieces.”

After what board members widely term expansive and even “staggering” amounts of conversation, debate and discussions, the final vote tends to produce unity.

TV and radio journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault says, “You get so emotionally involved that when we read off the winners, some of us were in tears. You realize, as a board member, that you’ve been part of something great.”

Winner’s List:

  • Justified (FX)
  • Great Performances: Macbeth (PBS)
  • Coverage of the Gulf Oil Spill (CNN)
  • Radiolab (WNYC-FM)
  • The Pacific (HBO)
  • Sherlock: A Study in Pink (PBS)
  • Lucia’s Letter (WGCU-FM)
  • LennoNYC (PBS)
  • Burma VJ (HBO)
  • Men of a Certain Age (TNT)
  • Bitter Lessons (WFAA-TV)
  • Trafficked: A Youth Radio Investigation (NPR/All Things Considered)
  • Independent Lens: Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian (PBS)
  • The Promised Land with Host Majora Carter (American Public Media Stations)
  • Magic & Bird: A Courtship of Rivals (HBO)
  • Covering Pakistan: War, Flood and Social Issues (NPR )
  • Wonders of the Solar System with Brian Cox (Science Channel)
  • Seeking Justice for Campus Rapes (NPR and npr.org)
  • Degrassi: My Body Is a Cage (TeenNick)
  • C-SPAN Video Library (cspan.org/videolibrary)
  • My Lai (PBS)
  • The Moth Radio Hour (Public Radio Stations)
  • For Neda (HBO)
  • Behind the Bail Bond System (NPR/All Things Considered and Morning)
  • 12th & Delaware (HBO)
  • Elia Kazan: A Letter to Elia (PBS)
  • If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (HBO)
  • Zimbabwe’s Forgotten Children (BBC Four)
  • William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible (PBS)
  • 30 for 30 (ESPN)
  • POV: The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (PBS)
  • Reality Check: Where Are the Jobs? (WTHR-TV)
  • Temple Grandin (HBO)
  • The Lord Is Not On Trial Here Today (WILL-TV)
  • The Cost of War: Traumatic Brain Injury; Coming Home a Different Person
  • Who Killed Doc? (KSTP-TV)
  • The Wounded Platoon (PBS)
  • The Good Wife (CBS)

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