Walter Cronkite once famously said, “You count your Emmys, you cherish your Peabodys.”

It’s a quote that comes up often with people connected with the esteemed Peabody Awards, from their director, Jeffrey Jones, to Keegan-Michael Key, a past winner and the host of the 75th anniversary awards ceremony, scheduled for May 21 at Cipriani Wall Street in downtown New York.

The question is, why? Why do so many people working across all aspects of television — from the entertainment side to the documentary, news programming and educational — so crave the honor of being named a Peabody winner?

“There’s a mystique to them,” explains Key, who won a Peabody himself in 2014 for his Comedy Central show, “Key & Peele.” “They have a passion for recognizing people who try to make an impact on the world. We try to put good vibrations out there and say something important socially, and for someone to recognize you for it, it’s really lovely. It just shows that people care what you’re putting out there, and there’s just a lot of prestige to it.”

Ask any previous winner, and you realize what it means to earn a Peabody. Suddenly, your show stands apart from almost anything else on TV. It’s not just about prestige — it’s about respectability.

“It’s an award I had no idea we would even be considered for,” says Constance Zimmer, star of the Lifetime series “UnReal,” a Peabody winner in its first season on the air. “So when I heard we won, it was beyond mind-blowing. It gives the show another outstanding stamp of approval that we never saw coming. Pretty cool, to say the least.”

That stamp of approval has been granted now for three-quarters of a century. At first, the awards were handed out to news and educational programming, but as television has evolved, so have the awards.

“In the early years, the board favored and biased public affairs programming over entertainment,” says director Jones. “In the three-network era of the 1950s, you’d get a tip of the hat to a ‘Lassie,’ or a ‘Captain Kang=aroo,’ but there was much more of an ‘eat your peas’ approach. The 1970s was a big turning point, with Norman Lear, Mary Tyler Moore and ‘Roots,’ entertainment programs showed they could deal with cultural issues in a stronger fashion than in the past. The Peabody board evolved with that, and we expanded the types of programming we recognized. We included cable, and more recently have branched out to recognize the Web. So we evolved with technological changes, but we also evolved in being able to recognize that it’s the power of the story, irrespective of who is telling it, or where.”

“It’s a very long, complex, challenging, exhausting, and, in the end, exhilarating procedure.”
Fred Young, Peabody Awards chair

What hasn’t evolved is how coveted the awards are. Jones and a series of selection committees narrow the field from over 1,200 submissions down to 60 finalists and, ultimately, 30 winners. The process is an arduous one. The Peabodys call on professors of television studies and their grad students to help cull the original list of submissions to a more manageable list of several hundred, at which point the main committee of 18 meets three different times to come up with the final list of winners.

This year, the meetings in Washington, D.C., suburban Los Angeles and, ultimately, Athens, Ga., — the home of the University of Georgia, which hosts the Peabodys — took place over the course of 13 days, during which the committee members debated, negotiated, argued, cajoled, persuaded, urged, exhorted and swayed each other to get their choices in each of seven categories: news, entertainment, documentaries, children’s programming, education, interactive programming and public service, on to the final list.

And getting onto that final list is the key: a program cannot be named a Peabody winner unless it is approved unanimously by the entire committee. Yes, unanimously.

“We review them again and again and again, so that by the time we get to the end, the vote is the beauty of the process,” says Fred Young, who has been on the board of jurors for seven years and was the chair of this year’s edition. “You go through this process, whittling it down to a couple dozen. It’s a very long, complex, challenging, exhausting, and, in the end, exhilarating procedure, but it’s a tremendous amount of fun. It’s also intensely rewarding, being able to learn more about the various forms of the medium in which all of us have worked in some form or another.”

Over the years, as the types of programming to win the awards have evolved and the number of entries has skyrocketed, what hasn’t changed is the kind of program the Peabodys recognize. That has always been about the same thing: paying service to stories that matter.

“It’s not a craft award,” Jones says. “It’s not for best directing or best acting. It asks, ‘Are these stories that matter?’ So it’s not just that Amy Schumer, for instance, is funny. It’s that she is saying something important about women, and misogyny, and the television industry at this moment in time. It’s not just that Key and Peele are funny. It’s that they’re saying something about race. ‘Jessica Jones,’ one of this year’s winners, is a great show, but more than that, it’s a feminist show. In every instance, the story is saying something to us.”

Such an august event demands a careful host. Key knows that this is not like other awards shows and he has a bit of a tightrope to walk.

“You want there to be levity and buoyancy to the presentation, but you also want to recognize what an achievement it is, so there are no cheap laughs,” Key agrees. “We’re looking for a celebratory attitude toward this ceremony, especially since it’s the 75th anniversary. We want to look back and see what the broadcast arts have done for our society. We’re not looking for yuk-yuks here.”