Since taking oversight of Peabody, Dr. Jeffrey Jones has orchestrated major changes regarding the prestigious Award, most visibly moving the gala from a weekday luncheon to a star-studded weekend evening event complete with red carpet. (Early bird deadline for submissions is December 15.) Jones talks about growing the brand, and why it matters now more than ever.
Cynopsis: How have the Peabody Awards evolved since you took over? What was your mandate?
Dr. Jeffrey Jones: At 77 years old, Peabody maintains its status as the oldest and most prestigious award for all genres of television, radio, and the web. We have evolved in two critical ways. One is visibility. We award Stories That Matter, and because they matter, it is all the more important that viewers and listeners be aware of what those stories are. We have been on television for four years now, including most recently co-broadcast on PBS and Fusion. Those are two very distinct demographics of viewers, but also with great national reach.
Secondly, because the awards originate from a public university we are unique position to comment on how and why these stories are important for us as citizens to deal with. Thus, through the Peabody Media Center, Peabody has begun enhancing its year-round programming and events to highlight stories that deserve further and extended conversation. From sexual harassment to mass incarceration and environmental degradation, there is no shortage of issues that Peabody recognizes that doesn’t deserve further discussion.
Cynopsis: What kind of content most appeals to Peabody judges?
Jones: Truly, as our tagline says, Stories That Matter to us as citizens. But we are also interested in powerful and compelling stories of all varieties. Innovation in storytelling is also typically a draw. With that said, it is hard to be precise because the Board is comprised of 18 judges, all of whom have strong opinions about what constitutes excellence in storytelling in electronic media. And since the deliberations are face-to-face and the final vote has to be unanimous, the winners that finally emerge are often the product of the Board’s discursive alchemy.
Cynopsis: What other Peabody-related programs have you launched, and how have they been received?
Jones: The first is the Peabody-Facebook Futures of Media Award, now in its third year. In partnership with Facebook, it is an award for innovation and excellence in digital storytelling, across categories such as VR, gaming, mobile, interactive documentaries, etc. It exists separate from the Peabody Awards, precisely to highlight the ways in which storytelling is changing due to the array of new affordances of digital technology. The second is the Peabody Media Center, launched in 2016. The Peabody Media Center is the scholarly and programmatic arm of the Awards program, and is designed to enhance the impact of the powerful stories we recognize through the awards. With seven scholarly fellows at universities across the U.S. and the Peabody Digital Network and Archives, the Center is becoming the hub through which we extend the conversation around Peabody-winning narratives in smart and creative new ways.
Cynopsis: Any thoughts on how late night TV is handling President Trump?
Jones: As much as late-night television likes to be seen as edgy, it has always been about the norm, including the norm of public opinion. There is nothing about the Trump presidency that is normal. We’ve never seen anything like it in U.S. history. Thus, late-night television is having a field day with Trump and his dangerous machinations (Russia, North Korea, climate change). Some of the writing is uproariously funny—Colbert, Sam Bee, and Seth Meyers—but some is also poignant and moving. Jimmy Kimmel’s “Have you no decency, sir?” types of moments about health care, even his tackling the politics behind routine massacres such as Las Vegas, has pushed comedy directly into political policy debates. Again, if Trump is not normal, neither will be the response by television commentators, including comedians.
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