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Peabody Awards Underline the Radical Changes in Electronic Media

On May 19, Peabody Awards will be handed out to 46 winners, the most in our 73-year history. Awards are not given in categories, for specific performances or production tasks. The sole criterion for winning is excellence in storytelling.

So why the unprecedented number of winners? Is there more excellent content than ever before? The answer is yes. The volume of quality storytelling has increased exponentially in the digital era.

And the Peabody board discovered numerous factors and forces at work in the nearly 1,100 submissions:

  •  New market conditions: We witnessed numerous new programming entities, many driven by the altered economic landscape for media. Internet subscription channels such as Netflix (winner for “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black”) are examples of how the economics of distribution can change programming decisions and storytelling options. Al Jazeera America (with two wins in its “Fault Lines” series) showed that a strong financial commitment to quality journalism from deep-pocketed, upstart cable networks, combined with a nothing-to-lose approach to storytelling, can yield great rewards. In addition, low-cost productions can produce powerful narratives, from YouTube series, “webisodes” and viral videos (such as “A Needed Response”) to more stylized yet low-budgeted public TV (“A Chef’s Life” series).
  • Commitment: There is a clear financial commitment to long-form storytelling, despite increased competition and the need to recoup analog-dollar costs in the age of digital pennies (to paraphrase Jeff Zucker), Numerous submissions showed a desire to tell tales across numerous segments and platforms. Turner Classic Movies augmented its U.S. debut of the 15-part “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” with a meticulous presentation of 119 films from 26 countries. Public television continues its tradition of multi-part historical documentaries, including “Latino Americans” and “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Journalists and documentarians continue with projects that take a long time to tell (for instance, “Harper High” from “This American Life” and PBS’s “180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School”).
  • Worldwide production: U.S. viewers expect quality dramas from broadcast and established cable networks. This year we also recognized winners from Denmark (“Borgen”), France (“The Returned”), the U.K. (“Broadchurch”), Canada (“Orphan Black”) and Pakistan (the spunky animated series “Burka Avenger”); we also viewed numerous hours of quality productions from Japan, South Africa, Australia and the Philippines. If we are experiencing a new Golden Age of television, it isn’t simply a U.S. phenomenon.
  • The digital factor: Storytelling in digital spaces offers perhaps the most exciting opportunities for engaging and complex narratives. Co-productions such as those between the New York Times and the National Film Board of Canada (“A Short History of the Highrise”) and between WVUE-TV and NOLA.com/The Times Picayune (“Louisiana Purchased”) demonstrate the potential for in-depth and multi-faceted storytelling across platforms. We saw numerous instances where user participation and engagement were central to the experience — for instance, “Hollow” (hollowdocumentary.org) and the use of gaming to provide user-led engagement with the story. The variety of media being employed within single productions — text, audio, photography, video, and GIS/mapping, among others — offers a vast new landscape.
  • Public Media Still Matter: Public radio and television continue to address important social and political issues. This year, such stories included gun violence, drugs and imprisonment, veterans, race and cultural heritage, warfare, sexual violence, health crises, international diplomacy, community, education, and sexual equality. In sum, excellence in storytelling is still connected to the meaningfulness and relevance of the story being told.

Every year the Peabody board is faced with an enormous task — calling attention to a small number of stories from a very large pool of deserving work. This year, many of the forces described here contributed to an increased number of excellent stories. Our task in the future for the Peabodys, which are based at the University of Georgia, will prove even more difficult as a result of these trends. The good news is that, as a jury, we get to watch, listen, and engage with such amazing stories and make the case why these are stories that matter to us, as citizens and consumers.

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