Peabody Awards Preview: Event Glitzes Up in First Evening Ceremony

AP Images
Fred Armisen

The prestigious awards show puts on a tux and heads to TV for its May 31 ceremony.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Last year, for the first time in the Peabody Awards' 74-year history, the show was televised. This year, the Peabodys will take a bolder step, moving the show to when people might actually watch -- at night.

Yes, the Peabodys, that stodgy ceremony celebrating excel­lence in broadcasting, will get a black-tie makeover. The traditional buttoned-down luncheon will be replaced by a shiny new nighttime ceremony (at Cipriani Wall Street in New York) complete with a red carpet, a celebrity host (2011 Peabody winner Fred Armisen) and promises of surprise cameos. Peabodys director Jeffrey P. Jones says the old ways were too boring. "At two-and-a-half hours, it's not lunch anymore," he explains. "It's a long meeting."

Armisen jokes that he'll "arrive very, very late. Like, a day late so attendees won't miss that this will be "a loose, somewhat chaotic event" unlike any other awards show. 

But the switch from lunch to dinner wasn't just about a bigger TV viewership (after all, the Peabodys air on Pivot TV, Participant Media's rocky cable startup, so even at night, the audience will be limited). It's part of a wider trend in the awards world, with lesser-known events attempting to raise their profiles in an increasingly crowded field. The Critics' Choice TV Awards made the switch from luncheon to nighttime soiree last year. The Webbys, an awards show for Internet pro­gramming, switched to an evening event in 2013. Even the National Book Awards upped its game a few years ago, turning its once-schlubby ceremony into a red-carpet gala with an afterparty (there's a waiting list) and celebrity attendees (look, Molly Ringwald!).

"The Feminist Majority Foundation's Global Women's Rights Award had a red carpet," noted one awards consultant. "That allowed them to get coverage they might not have otherwise had. That's the positive side of the glitz."

The Peabodys, though, are a special case. More prestigious than the Emmy -- Howdy Doody won in 1948; Edward R. Murrow's See It Now won in 1951 -- the award is the Pulitzer of broadcasting. Anyone can enter and committees of faculty and students at the University of Georgia (which curates the awards) winnow down the list. A board of 17 media veterans votes on the finalists, giving awards to all they unanimously agree exemplify "excellence in storytelling." The total number of awards varies. The most was 46 in 2013; 40 were given this year.

Over the decades, the Peabodys have expanded to keep up with the times, adding cable to the mix (HBO got the first in 1981 for She's Nobody's Baby: The History of American Women in the 20th Century), then the Internet and even viral videos (in 2013, "A Needed Response," a three-minute anti-rape video by two Ohio college students, became the first YouTube content honored).

According to Jones, the move to the evening was intended to give the ceremony a "funner feel" and "to shine a much broader spotlight on the Peabodys." (To get to "funner" Armisen said he's looking to "MTA Chairman Thomas F. Prendergast hosting the Subway Schedule Awards, 2011" for inspiration.) But it could have a more strategic impact, making the Peabodys more of a factor in the entertainment awards conversation, particularly regarding the Emmys. A higher-profile Peabodys on May 31 means that this year's recipients -- FX for The Americans, HBO for John Oliver's Last Week Tonight and Comedy Central's Inside Amy Schumer, to name a few -- will get one last boost of publicity before Emmy voters start casting ballots just a few weeks later, on June 15.

Still, the Peabodys have one big drawback on TV: The winners are announced in advance, leaving no hope for suspense. "Most awards shows are about the 'reveal,' " says Jones, drawing a line in the sand as to how far the Peabodys are will­ing to adapt. "That's not what we're about. We're about the stories themselves."