Networks Without Distinction


In 1975, when Peabody Awards were announced, the winners included ABC,
for its “ABC Afterschool Specials,” and that network's made-for-TV movie
Love Among the Ruins, starring Katherine
Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. CBS won for M*A*S*H, then in just its fourth season.

A decade later, NBC got a Peabody for An Early
, a movie about the new killer called AIDS, at a time
homosexuality was a too hot topic for most media. CBS News won for a
documentary about the new wave of immigrants. CBS also won for a half-hour
documentary about … Johann Sebastian Bach.

Just 10 years ago, CBS News won for In the
Killing Fields of America
, a documentary about the epidemic of
violence in America. ABC News won for Hiroshima: Why
the Bomb Was Dropped
, on the 50th anniversary of that horrific
event, and CBS won again for presenting August Wilson's Pulitzer
Prize-winning drama The Piano Lesson.

The above is just a sample of the many winning entries from the Big Four
broadcast networks in those years.

A winner this year was CBS News, for its 60
Minutes II: Abuse at Abu Ghraib.
That wasone of the biggest stories of the year, but it also
comes with its own weird baggage. Not long after the abuse story, Mary Mapes,
the producer, was led to the CBS exit for a botched 60
story on President Bush's National Guard history, and Dan
Rather, the principal reporter on the Abu Ghraib story, retired early from his
post as anchor of CBS Evening News for his
involvement in the same story.

But in 2005, that was the only winner
from among the broadcast networks.

Significantly, cable networks won a dozen Peabodys for a range of
documentaries and dramas. (A full list of winners and a story about the awards
can be found at

The Peabody judges aren't gods, and it's not like there is nothing
of real quality on the Big Four, or that cable is so high-brow. (We've
watched Spike.)

But being virtually shut out of the Peabodys (coupled with a now yearly
humiliation at the Emmy Awards) signals something broadcasters need to think

Could it be that the networks are losing some of their audience because,
in the move to make news a profit center, they gave up some real estate they

The networks should do a little more thinking about how they use the
time they have. Put on an occasional documentary about something important and
compelling after Desperate Housewives or
American Idol, and a network can perform a magnificent
public service and also get impressive ratings. From what we've observed,
quality material of any sort attracts upscale consumers, the kind television ad
executives are always looking to find.

The better cable networks have understood that and jumped into the gap
broadcasters have left them. Those cable networks know what the Big Four might
need to recollect: Even a little bit of great television is healthy for the
bottom line and, one might add, for the television viewer. There's no shame,
only honor in making award-winning television.