- Defining Television Excellence "On Its Own Terms":The Peabody Awards and Negotiating Discourses of Quality
Contemporary television's artistic achievements seem to be an increasingly popular topic among reviewers and critics, pointing to growing appreciation for seriality and the small screen. As Australian critic Kenneth Nguyen has bluntly stated, "The idiot box has gotten smarter.… [T]he on-screen evidence shows that television can tell stories with intelligence, depth, and verve."1 Indeed, shows like The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007), Mad Men (AMC, 2007–), The Wire (HBO, 2002–2008), Lost (ABC, 2004–2010), 30 Rock (NBC, 2006–), and Friday Night Lights (NBC, 2006–) have elicited celebration from viewers, fans, critics, and academics alike, all of whom point to writer/producers David Chase, David Simon, Tina Fey, Damon Lindelof, and Carlton Cuse as television "auteurs." Film stars are even "jumping back into television," declared New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane. "And who can blame them, since that is where you can find the better scripts these days," he wrote in 2008.2 While there may be some consensus that contemporary television affords new creative opportunities, these notions of quality, value, and "smarter" storytelling in television are of course complex and contentious. Scholars have long labored to understand just what makes "quality television," from aesthetic qualities and production values to authorial intent and encouragement of audience engagement.3 In the 1980s and early 1990s, an era that he terms [End Page 160] "television's second golden age," Robert Thompson identifies twelve characteristics that form a "profile" of quality television as a category, including notions of pedigree, "blue chip" audiences, controversial subject matter, and a self-conscious awareness of popular culture.4 Quality television is also marked, according to Thompson, by receiving critical acclaim and numerous awards.
Awards ceremonies are a significant component of the television industry, offering annual displays of self-affirmation and celebration that mobilize discourses of quality and excellence in the medium. Millions tune in every year for the Primetime Emmy Awards and red-carpet regalia of the Golden Globe Awards, watching the most "outstanding" programs, writers, directors, and on-screen talent vie for statues. Determined by votes from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, respectively, the Emmys and the Golden Globes represent an important site of industry notions of who and what are important. Often, there is significant overlap between what the industry awards as "excellent" and what academia considers noteworthy in television. However, the specificities of this overlap remain largely underanalyzed. John Caldwell calls for a closer look at the "curious affinity" between scholarly media studies and industry "theorizing," pointing out that whether through peer-reviewed publishing or trade habits like pitch sessions, academia and industry both engage in similar activities of "close critical analyses, aesthetic speculation, screen technology assessment, reception study, historical debate, and general formal and cultural theorization."5
As one of the only award programs for television and electronic media that includes deliberation among academics, critics, and industry practitioners, the Peabody Awards represent a nexus of scholarly and industrial definitions of "excellence," and thus serve as a critical site to analyze the intersections and tensions between these discourses of quality in television and television writing and producing. Established in 1940, the George Foster Peabody Awards annually recognize excellence in television, radio, and websites. There are no set categories or specific number of awards given each year; rather, the sixteen-member Peabody Board determines each year's winners based on submissions from local, national, and international broadcasters, cable networks, and production companies (often numbering over 1,000 entries). Winners include a wide array of programs, with recent honorees ranging from Modern Family (ABC, 2009–), Glee (Fox, 2009–), and In Treatment (HBO, 2008–), to news segments from 60 Minutes (CBS, 1968–) and FOX Chicago affiliate WFLD-TV, to radio documentaries like The Great Textbook War (2009) from West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
In addition to bestowing annual honors, the Peabody Awards, administered by the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, have amassed a significant archival collection that contains not only every winner and award citation since 1940, but also almost every entry...