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Peabody Awards Keep Pace With Changing Times

Variety logo Variety 5/19/2017 Iain Blair
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At an age, 76, when many awards shows and institutions seem to struggle with diversity issues and to keep abreast of rapidly changing times, the Peabody Awards seem to be more relevant and resilient than ever. And while there may still be a lingering perception that the awards largely salute dry, public-affairs programming, this is far from the reality.

“Just look at the entertainment winners this year,” says Jeffrey P. Jones, director of the George Foster Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia. “You have Donald Glover’s ‘Atlanta’ series and Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade,’ and those are more than just representations of African-American stories, as they have resonance beyond that community into the broad public. And then we have ‘Horace and Pete,’ where Louis C.K. really stepped out on a limb to self-finance a show that really harkens back to the Playhouse 90 era. All these are cutting-edge projects, and there’s nothing dry or safe about any of them.”

Jones points out that while “Lemonade” did not win the Album of the Year Grammy, “Peabody has always recognized great storytelling that speaks to all citizens, not just a particular group.”

Other honorees include the FX series “Better Things,” which examines the vicissitudes of working motherhood and was co-created by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K.; HBO’s “Veep,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus; and documentaries “O.J.: Made in America,” “13th” and “Frontline.”

And in saluting TV, radio and digital works for excellence in storytelling, Peabody has also stressed the international aspect of artistic endeavor. Recent honorees have included Denmark’s “Borgen Project,” and this year Britain’s “National Treasure” (Channel 4/Hulu), a dark and timely examination of sexual abuse at the hands of a privileged celebrity, and “Happy Valley” (BBC One, Netflix), a fresh take on the British crime drama, are both being honored.

“We’ve always had more entries and winners from Britain, where they’ve had such a long tradition of great TV series and documentaries,” he says. “But great TV is coming from all over now, including France and Scandinavia, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of recognizing that in the last 10 or 15 years.

“Clearly Peabody recognizes news and documentaries, and such issues as women’s rights and racial and gender inequality,” adds Jones. “These are the hallmarks of the Peabody brand, and the genre doesn’t matter so much as the quality of the storytelling. We’re not a craft award. We’re celebrating ideas and storytelling.”

This year’s Peabody Award winners and finalists will be celebrated at a gala event May 20 at Cipriani Wall Street in New York and will later air on both PBS and Fusion networks.

The awards were created back in 1940 — “so we predate the Emmys,” notes Jones — with the first ceremony held in 1941. “The awards are still chosen by an 18-member board, and they have to be unanimous.”

In terms of categories, “we have entertainment and documentaries, but the numbers are fluid and this year we have seven entertainment honorees,” reports Jones. “We get about 1,200 entries, which goes up slightly every year, and it’s a self-nominated program. Obviously all the big networks submit a lot of stuff, but we also get a lot from independents. The biggest growth area this year has been in podcasts — that’s been a huge surge.”

Rashida Jones, a previous Peabody winner for “Parks and Recreation,” “The Office” and current star of “Angie Tribeca,” will serve as host for this year’s broadcast.

“She’s a very talented comedian, who respects the brand and the awards,” says Jones.

Hosting is “a wonderful honor, maybe not as good as winning one but, oh well, I’ll still be there, right?” the actress-producer quips. “Being in the room with friends, peers, and heroes of mine, I am excited to be amongst people being recognized and celebrated for their work — sometimes overlooked, sometimes boundary-pushing, sometimes difficult but always meaningful. As an industry, we are at a crossroads when it comes to the importance of diversity, quality and veracity. The Peabody Awards is a touchstone that reminds us why we do what we do. I’m so proud to be a part of it.”

Director Jones predicts continued growth in the awards ahead. “We began as a luncheon, and now we have a much higher profile thanks to the broadcast.”

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