Kerry Washington positioned herself at the podium inside the TV Academy’s Saban Media Center in North Hollywood just after 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday night and admitted the task she had in front of her was a “daunting” one — to present a tribute for the Hall of Fame ceremony’s first of five inductees, Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger.
“How in the space of five minutes do you summarize one of the most brilliant, prolific innovative disruptors in the history of television? Bob Iger is a visionary leader of almost mythic proportions. The man is a legend. His rise through the ranks is storied, his accomplishments are the stuff of legend. If there wasn’t already a TV Hall of Fame, we’d have to invent one in order to induct Bob,” said the actress, who then went on to track the exec’s rise through the Disney ranks and his many industry-shaking acquisitions — everything from ABC to ESPN and Pixar to 20th Century Fox.
Then came something in her speech that did seem truly daunting, if not Herculean — Washington compared one of the industry’s most respected executives and most powerful men to … a Disney princess?
“I know this may be controversial, but when you really think about it, Bob is kind of like the ultimate Disney princess. I don’t want you to panic, I want you to hear me out,” she explained as audience members giggled and shuffled in their seats. “He began his career sweeping ashes out of the oven at Pizza Hut. If that is not a modern-day Cinderella, I don’t know what is. Then eventually, just like Cinderella, things changed when he befriended a mouse. He set out to change his fate. Like Moana, he went beyond the reef. Like Tiana, he kissed a few frogs, professionally speaking, I mean. Not every new TV show is going to be Grey’s Anatomy, but that’s the cost of being bold — and it was worth it.”
Washington also praised Iger for the bold move of putting a show — her show, Scandal — on ABC with a black woman as the lead of a network drama: “None of the other networks were doing it. No one had done it in almost 40 years, but Bob and the team of leadership that he had empowered, many of them women and women of color — Anne Sweeney, Channing Dungey, Betsy Beers, Shonda Rhimes — they never wavered. Bob helped to create a culture in television, where we take risks, where we can be creative and innovative and step into our own greatness because he stepped into his.”
She continued: “You see, like a true Disney princess, Bob doesn’t choose the easy path. He follows the ones with thorns and traps, turbulence and waves because he wants what so many of us want: to tell good stories to tell them well, and to touch as many hearts as he can. … As a leader, he’s made it possible for others to become the heroes of their own stories. Without him, I’m not sure that I ever would have learned to be the hero of my own story, both onscreen and off. Thank you, Bob, for giving me dreams to dream and then making them come true.”
Washington then welcomed Iger to the stage as the crowd of several hundred TV insiders responded with the night’s first standing ovation during a ceremony that also inducted acting legend Cicely Tyson, mogul Seth MacFarlane, TV director Jay Sandrich (who was absent due to illness, but his wife Linda accepted on his behalf) and Nickelodeon and Oxygen trailblazer Geraldine Laybourne. Iger saluted them all at the top of his remarks before thanking his many Disney bosses and those who paved the way for his success. He then turned his attention to the present.
“Now all of us Hall of Famers have certainly witnessed more profound and more incredible change — in fact, the complete rapid transformation of our industry, one I don’t think any of us could have ever imagined. But as daunting as that all is, it’s consistent with the sweeping changes that the world has seen. In a world that has swirled with change, I think it needs all of us more than ever because of anxiety and uncertainty and contempt seem to dominate the headlines and people’s lives,” said the exec. “And with that in mind and given televisions omnipresence in the world and the ability to reach billions of people every day, I believe we have more than just an opportunity — we have a responsibility to serve the vital needs of people and to make a profoundly positive difference in the world because the story we tell can provide a much-needed escape and they also help people relate to one another, gain a deeper understanding, different perspectives and create a sense of connection and hopefully a sense of optimism, which is something that we at the Walt Disney company strive for every day.
Iger said that can be achieved through the telling of positive stories “that promote strong values, add inspiring role models, but by also being truth-tellers.”
The exec then closed his speech with a call to action that he said “should be” the number one priority: “Making sure that more women, minorities and other underrepresented groups have the opportunity to tell their stories both onscreen and behind the camera, so that they may play a bigger role and contribute even more meaningful ways to the quality and the resonance of the content that we create.”
That spirit of inclusivity and opportunity was reflected in speeches by Laybourne, who broke boundaries by presenting content with girls at the center during her days at Nickelodeon, and by Tyson, who was brought the stage by Shonda Rhimes. Tyson’s boss at How to Get Away With Murder called her a “trailblazer of the highest order,” someone who put personal integrity ahead of Hollywood success by refusing any character that “would degrade not only herself as an actress, but as she says, she also refused any character that would degrade women of color in general, because that could reverberate into future generations.”
In accepting, the actress joked that she wasn’t sure of whom Rhimes was speaking. Tyson also got laughs when she said that, at age 95, she sometimes looks in the mirror and asks herself, “Cicely, do you believe it?”
Someone who also got the crowd laughing was MacFarlane. “This is easily the second-best thing that has happened to me this month,” he quipped before adding, “Anytime I get to come out to North Hollywood, it is a treat. I got ripped off buying my first car here. It is truly an honor to be recognized by the Television Hall of Fame alongside so many TV legends and Les Moonves.”
The audeince responded to the jab at the disgraced CBS boss with groans to which MacFarlane responded, “Don’t look at me, man. You put him there.” He also made a joke that involved another honoree — Iger, whose company bought Fox, home of many of MacFarlane’s creations, including Family Guy: “I’m receiving this at a time when I’ve passed another career milestone. Walt Disney’s Family Guy has been on — Hey, Bob, I’m towing the fucking company line! — has been on television for two decades.”
In closing, MacFarlane credited his work ethic to one simple personal mandate. “Comedy is all about the analysis of imperfection, and here, in a Twitter-ruled society where there is less and less tolerance for imperfection, one hopes that comedy still has a long future. I like to think it does. Ralph Kramden, Fred Flintstone, Archie Bunker, Henry Higgins, these were all characters that fascinated me because they were deeply, deeply imperfect and as a result, never boring,” said MacFarlane, who was honored by Don Mischer. The legendary live TV producer called MacFarlane “one of the most prolific, multi-talented creative individuals” that he’s ever worked with.
“I tried hard to continue that tradition,” said MacFarlane. “From Peter Griffin to Stan Smith to Ted to the crew on The Orville, these are all imperfect people doing imperfect things, but they’re all constantly trying to do better. That’s really my only motive as I go from project to project. I’m just trying to do better than I did last time. It really doesn’t go too much deeper than that.”