Noncommercial broadcasters take home the lion's share
By Harry A. Jessell, Editor in Chief -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/3/2001 8:00:00 PM
By the time it was Jon Stewart's turn to pick up his Peabody, the awards luncheon at New York's Waldorf-Astoria was approaching three hours (four, if you count the 11 a.m. cocktail reception). "When I got here this morning, Mr. Peabody was clean-shaven," quipped Stewart, who was nonetheless happy to receive the award for Comedy Central's The Daily Show, which lampoons politics and TV news with equal vigor.
The University of Georgia's Peabody Awards, named for the bearded philanthropist George Foster Peabody, are the most prestigious in electronic journalism, although they now also recognize the best in drama and comedy on TV.
Yeah, the ceremony was long. But you still kind of wanted to see more of every clip from the 33 programs that earned awards: news segments, documentaries, made-for-TV movies, dramas and, in the case of The Daily Show, a series of programs ("Indecision 2000"). They were that good. They were funny, poignant, informative, entertaining and important. I made notes to call for review copies of some of the ones I hadn't seen (a perk of this job).
If you sat through the whole program, you'd have to agree that the health of electronic journalism is good, perhaps as good as it has ever been. But you might also be surprised by who is doing the best work, according to the Peabody judges.
For the most part, it isn't broadcasters and cable news networks. It's noncommercial TV and radio and HBO. Of the 24 Peabodys for news, documentaries and public affairs, noncommercial entities and the pay-cable giants accounted for 14.
The Big Four broadcast networks garnered four awards, with CBS and NBC picking up two each and ABC and Fox being shut out. Local TV stations copped just two.
Cable news networks—CNN, Headline News, MSNBC, CNBC, Fox News Channel—crank out a lot of news in a year, yet they could muster only one Peabody. CNN won it for a documentary on the fighting in Sierra Leone.
Meanwhile, PBS and other noncommercial broadcasters mounted the Waldorf stage 10 times to be honored for news and public-affairs programming. HBO made the trip four times. It was much the same last year.
So what are PBS and HBO doing that the others aren't? Quite simply, ignoring ratings. They have that luxury because neither relies on advertising. PBS gets its money from the government and donations; HBO, from subscription fees. Without the imperative to draw large audiences, PBS and HBO can do stories that may not have a direct impact on American viewers, stories that can't be packaged neatly, stories that may not show an immediate return on investment, stories that need telling even if not many want to listen.
Longtime Belo Broadcasting executive Marty Haag, who won this year's only individual Peabody for his long career in local TV news, says the advertiser-supported networks simply have their news priorities wrong. "They start with the basic premise that the show must get respectable ratings, rather than this is a subject that needs to be illuminated."
The cable news nets seem to be so busy with spot news and punditry that they have lost their interest in investigative reporting. And it's not that the broadcast networks don't devote considerable time to news. A slew of newsmagazines—60 Minutes, 60 Minutes II, 48 Hours, 20/20 and Dateline—now checker the prime time schedule.
But many of the segments are light fare: consumer news, celebrity profiles and, way too often, crime-and-punishment stories. And many are based on newspaper and magazine articles or books. Peabody judges and discriminating viewers would like to see a little enterprise, some real investigations.
Dateline last week did an hour on a vet accused of smacking a Dalmatian on the head and saying nasty things ("rotten dog") to it after it tried to bite him. Not exactly Harvest of Shame.
More often than not, the networks are doing little more than local sweeps specials, puffed up with better production value. "It's pseudo news," says Haag.
The newsmagazines score every once and awhile. For 60 Minutes II, CBS' Ed Bradley told the story of the 23 million people suffering from HIV and AIDS in Africa and the cultural and political obstacles to dealing with the pandemic. It was everything TV journalism should be. And, of course, it was one of the three broadcast newsmagazine shows recognized with a Peabody.
Advertising and news grew up together, first in newspapers and magazines, then in radio and TV. They now seem to be growing apart. Let's hope that's not so. I'll be counting the Peabodys again next year.
Jessell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-337-6964.
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