Excellence on Selective Terms
March 31st, 2010
The criteria for earning a Peabody Award, a prestigious honour in the area of electronic media, is listed as follows on the awards’ website:
The Award is determined by one criterion – “Excellence.” Because submissions are accepted from a wide variety of sources and styles, deliberations seek “Excellence On Its Own Terms.” Each entry is evaluated on the achievement of standards it establishes within its own contexts. Entries are self-selected by those making submissions and as a result the quality of competing works is extraordinarily high. The Peabody Awards are then presented only to “the best of the best.”
There’s a whole other post to be made about whether such a blatantly subjective criterion earns the awards the sense of objectivity that they hold, but for the sake of this post I think we can presume that the Peabody Awards have a pretty good track record. They have feted dramas like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, and The Sopranos, while acknowledging comedies like 30 Rock, The Office and South Park; they are not limited to only mainstream fare, with cult hits like Battlestar Galactica getting recognition, nor are they beholden to narrative-driven series television, as reality shows like Project Runway and satire like The Colbert Report have been singled out.
This year, the Peabody Awards added four television series to their ranks, and on the surface there’s some nice diversity: Glee and Modern Family are mainstream hits that made a substantial impact on the television industry this year, while In Treatment and No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency are shows with smaller followings but with some substantial value in terms of performances (in the case of In Treatment) and (in the case of No. 1 Ladies’) a unique relationship with an emerging film industry in Botswana.
However, rather than simply listing the shows awarded and letting us figure out our own reasonings, the Peabody folks have written short and succinct reasons why the shows in question are being awarded. And it is in these brief distillations of their worthiness that the flaws of this process become apparent, as the qualities they point to for Glee and Modern Family demonstrate a selective gaze into multi-faceted, and still developing, series which fails to capture their true appeal in order to focus on their most hyped, and in some cases divisive, qualities. In the process, we start to understand the challenge of rewarding entire series alongside standalone news reports, and we start to wonder why they would so willingly call attention to those challenges with these short and imprecise justifications.