Who Needs a Peabody?

The oldest TV and radio award might be dwarfed by the Emmy, but it can propel smart little shows to bigger paydays.

On May 4, Fred Armisen got an exultant text from Amy Poehler: "We got the Peabodys!" On May 21, Armisen's IFC hipster satire Portlandia, Poehler's NBC comedy Parks and Recreation and 36 others will collect Peabody Awards at New York's Waldorf-Astoria, and Armisen can hardly wait. "Where else do I get to hang out with the people from Game of Thrones?" he says. "I want to stand in front of their table and clap. And yell at King Joffrey."

The 71st annual Peabodys will boast the most eclectic guest list of any major entertainment awards. Clowns like Poehler, Armisen and Stephen Colbert will rub shoulders with high-gravitas reporters from CNN and Al Jazeera and producers from Jeopardy! (which, according to insiders, probably finally won after years of near misses thanks to historic 2011 champ Watson, the IBM computer). All categories -- radio, web and TV -- get the same Peabody Award.

"It is the indie award," says Armisen, who thinks each year's Peabody winners comprise a better snapshot of our culture than the Emmy winners do.

"We were ahead of the Emmys on Justified, and we gave The Wire its first award," says Peabody director Horace Newcomb, one of 16 jurors for the honor.

"It's not a Hollywood-centric award," says Elizabeth Guider, a Peabody juror since 2008. You can't campaign for a Peabody; 2011 winner The Good Wife didn't even submit an application, which costs $350. The jurors simply chose it. "We judge a show on its merits, not on what other awards it's won or its chances of renewal," says Guider.

A Peabody seldom ups the odds of renewal. Newcomb says the Peabody gave Boomtown an extra season, but 30 Rock got canceled despite two Peabodys (and 14 Emmy wins and 77 Emmy noms). What's fun is going down in history. "People in the industry count their Emmys but treasure their Peabody," says 2012 chair Joe Urschel.

Actually, people in the industry treasure their treasure, and for some, the Peabody can help increase it. Portlandia -- so obscure that even former Hollywood Reporter editor Guider hadn't heard of it until other jurors extolled it -- needs the new viewers it will get among the influential intelligentsia.

The Peabody also will raise Portlandia's profile among Emmy voters, who gave it only a 2011 costume award in the catchall variety, music or special category. "A sketch show like Portlandia is hard to categorize, and it will have trouble in traditional competition categories," says former Peabody chair Ron Simon, a curator at The Paley Center for Media. The Peabody helps busy Emmy voters get Portlandia's hybrid comedy, and name recognition is crucial in Emmy contests.

After 13 Emmy noms and two wins, you'd think Game of Thrones needs a Peabody like Tyrion Lannister needs another trollop. But its Peabody prestige might further erode the Emmys' traditional resistance to the fantasy genre. "It tells lots of people Thrones is not just for fanatics -- there's something deeper," says Simon. "And the Peabody puts Homeland even more on the map." He thinks the award could help the Showtime drama deprive Mad Men of a historic fifth consecutive series Emmy. Maybe Poehler, a four-time Emmy nominee, could win at last.

Newsday columnist Diane Werts says the Peabody is most important for smaller channels like IFC or Sundance. "And if you're HBO or Showtime," she says, "it never hurts to give viewers a chance to pat themselves on the back for being smart enough to stay subscribed to you." Even if the Peabody provides no Emmy boost or giant audience spike, says Parks and Rec exec producer Mike Schur, "It's a nice feeling that the statue you got is the same one Edward R. Murrow got."

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6 Peabody Honorees 2012

  • Game of Thrones: "A multilayered, distinctly imagined world," say jurors.
  • Homeland: "A Rorschach test of post-9/11 doubts, fears and suspicions," say jurors.
  • The Colbert Report: Won for super PAC episodes.
  • Portlandia: "The satire is fresh, organic and cage-free," say jurors.
  • Parks and Recreation: "Shrewd, good-natured comedy," say jurors.
  • Treme: "If [the Peabody] brings a smidge more attention to the show, that'd be lovely," says executive producer Eric Overmyer.
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