The Peabody cachet

No categories, no restrictions: Excellence is the sole criterion

Since joining the Peabody Awards program in July, I have heard one question more than any other: What makes the Peabody so special?

Some who ask know little or nothing about the award and want to understand why it is important to me. Others know a great deal, may have won a Peabody themselves, but can't quite express the real honor they've achieved. Still others think they know the answer; they just want to hear what I have to say.

I'm always pleased to respond because, since my days as a member of the Peabody Board, when I helped select two- or three-dozen winners from among more than a thousand submissions, I've developed my sense of what I call the Peabody distinction. That distinction lies in circumstances structuring the selection process. But even more, it lies in the process itself.

Unlike other prizes, Peabodys are not awarded in categories. True, submissions are designated as documentary, entertainment, news, children's, educational, and public service. But this is an administrative convenience. In the end, every entry competes with every other. Moreover, all entries compete across media: radio, broadcast television, cable and, for the first time this year, Webcasts. If no entertainment program, no documentary, no children's program is deemed worthy of a Peabody, none will be given. One criterion, excellence, determines selection for an award.

Another key Peabody distinction is that the search for excellence is conducted not by professional peer groups but by an eclectic group of citizens—critics, performers, media artists, academics, business leaders, government executives—who bring an extraordinary range of experience, expertise, perspective and concern to their task. Sixteen Peabody board members with overlapping, limited terms make the final determinations.

From this group, varying meanings of excellence are offered, described and applied. No classical definition is presented to board members. No claims are made that a previous year's awards have established a touchstone. No narrow notion of culture, purpose or venue restricts the term. Rather, excellence might exhibit the sophistication of the latest technology or appear in the efforts of an independent producer working with rented low-end equipment. It may result from all the polish and expertise of Hollywood or from the efforts of a small-town radio station. Excellence may be framed in terms of meritorious community service in one instance, of enlightenment or instruction in another, of inspiration or astonishment, even of alarm and warning. And certainly it may be defined in terms of elegance and beauty.

This is not
to say that notions of excellence are arbitrary or that the committee is fickle. Rather, the truest distinction of the award, the best answer for "what does the Peabody mean?" is that recognition of excellence and selection for a Peabody emerge from careful, deliberative conversation. This conversation is founded on mutual respect for difference. It recognizes the limitations of individual experience and acknowledges the value of collective wisdom. It is not a conversation defined by simple and easy arrival at consensus. At times, it is difficult, contentious. But when the final, small list of awards is unanimously affirmed, it is because these people, these citizens know they have each been heard. They have engaged in a serious exchange of ideas.

These deliberations are grounded in profound respect for the role of electronic media in contemporary life. In fields so often dismissed—even by their practitioners—as "trivial," the Peabody process recognizes the thoughtful, the wonderful, the moving, the provocative, the significant. The award is special because this persistent search for excellence challenges those who produce, create and distribute to do better, to be better, to accept the responsibility that comes with their access to mass media. It calls on them to acknowledge the delight they take in their efforts and to make works that honor their audiences.

This year, our call for entries has gone out under the cloud of concern that now covers the world. We anticipate numerous submissions dealing with recent events. But we also look for many other works, produced before and after those events, programs of all types that have continued to comfort, guide and instruct us since Sept. 11.

From among all these entries, careful consideration will once again lead to selection of the few that rise to the level of the Peabody. And those few, we believe, will again redefine—as they have for more than six decades—the best that is possible for electronic media.