The Peabody Collection
By Dr. Ethan Thompson, Assistant Professor of Communication, Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi
My chief field of scholarship is television studies, and most of my research has focused on television comedy, particularly looking at parody and irony as strategies for cultural production and reception. I like to conceptualize my work on media culture as writing the history of the past and of the present. Because the Peabody Awards Collection, which is housed at the University of Georgia Library, spans back to the earliest years of television broadcasting and continues to grow with new additions each year, it is a valuable resource for bridging the televisual past and present.
Shari Lewis and Lambchop from the Peabody Awards Collection
A research grant from the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi allowed me to travel to Athens and the Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Collection to view rare TV programs and examine written materials housed at the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection. The collection contains most of the TV programs that have been nominated for the award (sometimes referred to as the “Pulitzer Prize of TV”) since the late 1940s. Though I was familiar with the awards, I had not heard about the collection until hearing a presentation by UGA archivist Margaret Compton at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in March 2006. Most research in television studies is done on contemporary programs, and the need for more researchers to utilize historical collections of television was echoed by both scholars and archivists at that conference, and again at the Flow Television Conference in October 2006 where Ruta Abolins, director of the archive, spoke about the collection. By the time of that conference, however, I had already received my grant to travel to Athens and was looking forward to some hardcore television watching—I call it “research.”
The Peabody collection is exceptional because it consists of programs considered to be of unusual quality—at least by those who nominated the programs for the award. The archive is on the one hand a valuable repository for the programs themselves, many of which are truly unique and unavailable elsewhere. What interests me most about the Peabody collection, however, isn’t that the programs housed there are particularly good, rather that someone at some point in history thought they were particularly good. As such, the collection is a valuable map for reconstructing changing cultural tastes and industry conceptions about what constitutes “quality” programming.
Besides the programs themselves, the collection also includes nomination forms and other materials, such as press clippings, submitted with the programs. These, too, are particularly useful since they reveal what it was about the shows the nominators thought ought to be recognized as outstanding.
Art Carney and Jackie Gleason, The Honeymooners, from the Peabody Awards Collection
From what I can tell, no other comedy programs have wanted Peabody awards as bad as Father Knows Best and South Park. Though these shows are radically different in tone and content, both waged multi-year campaigns to get a Peabody. The contrasts between the two, one from the 1950s and one from the 2000s, serves as a useful comparison between what has been considered quality TV comedy. The nominating materials for Father Knows Best tie quality to its moral tone, a tone achieved by presenting entertainment “with dignity and good taste” and “a family grabbling with believable problems in an honest way.” South Park, on the other hand, referred to itself as an “equal-opportunity offender... happily skewering both left and right” and noted how one episode submitted for consideration had a counter in the corner of the screen which kept track of how many times a character used a particularly profanity. While Father Knows Best deployed realism to represent family life, South Park’s nomination forms stress how the show’s animation techniques (sometimes criticized as crude) allow the shows to be produced in less than a week, thus enabling a topicality uncommon in narrative television. There’s another major distinction between the two shows: South Park succeeded in winning a Peabody while Father Knows Best never did.
One of the most interesting discoveries I made in the archive was an episode of a documentary series titled Laughter’s a Funny Business that was produced in 1959. The episode seeks to explain Sigmund Freud’s theories about humor such as how jokes work to release inhibitions and how we vicariously indulge in forbidden desires and behaviors through comic characters. That a television program would try to explain why something is funny, rather than just be funny, might seem a bit strange to us today. But throughout the 1950s, there was a cultural preoccupation with what constituted normal vs. sick humor that coincided with the postwar boom in commercial culture. In that context, it might not seem so strange to see a show hosted by a real college professor conversing with a fake Freud about the origins of laughter and “mama trauma.”
Or maybe a little less strange, anyway.