Hollywood awards shows come and go, but they usually play it pretty safe. Sure, there’s the occasional political statement or shout-out to a cause that later becomes fodder for “South Park”—but most of these affairs involve red carpets, reality stars, mindless banter and pun-filled frivolity… just the way we like it. In the last few years, however, organizers have started creating splinter awards programs that don’t just tolerate those fleeting moments of social consciousness but that actually celebrate entertainment content’s power to inform and persuade.
That was on full display last night in Beverly Hills at the Television Academy Honors, which recognized several TV networks and producers for content that basically “makes us think,” for lack of a better description. Yes, it’s Beverly Hills. Yes, it’s the bastion of self-righteous, self-congratulatory do-goodism. And yes, the endless parade of awards and celebrations can get a bit superfluous. But what do you expect? This is the entertainment industry. This is what we do. And to be sure, it’s increasingly important in our cynical world to acknowledge TV’s power and ever-present potential to be more than just a vast wasteland of pop-culture schlock.
TV—and especially cable—can truly make a difference. For every ridiculous reality show that celebrates vapid idolatry, there’s scripted and unscripted fare that inspires and enlightens, tackles tough subjects that otherwise wouldn’t come to light and—at their best—educates without preaching. When done well, storytelling weaves its hopeful messages into the fabric of its narrative. We often don’t know that what we just watched influenced our view of the world, perhaps chipping away at some prejudices and perceptions we didn’t even know lived inside us.
Cable honorees Thurs night included HBO, Comedy Central, Food Network and Nickelodeon—all recognized by the Television Academy of Emmys fame for stellar work that stood out among hundreds of entries across the TV landscape. Here’s a quick rundown:
Two HBO shows won, including “The Newsroom” for its ability to weave social commentary into its stories (we’ll make an exception to the “no preaching” rule for this one) and “One Nation, Under Dog: Stories of Fear, Loss and Betrayal,” a documentary that celebrates the bonds between human and dog while also showing the worse of human cruelty when it comes to puppy mills and other horrific abuse.
Comedy Central, which won for its D.L. Hughley-produced special “The Endangered List,” managed to tackle racism through a satirical campaign to get black men on the Endangered Species list. Hughley plays it for laughs while forcing us all to consider the sad social commentary hiding beneath the jokes.
Nickelodeon’s long-running “Nick News with Linda Ellerbee” won for tackling HIV and AIDS, and teaching their young peers with the disease deserve respect and acceptance—not the cold shoulder or fearful exile from their social circles. Seeing that several of the children interviewed by Ellerbee over the years have moved on to become motivational and educational speakers was further evidence that the award is well deserved.
And Food Network, which won for its “Hunger Hits Home” special, showed us that childhood hunger remains a much bigger American problem that most us here in the world’s richest country would like to admit. Kids go hungry every day, and that affects their ability to learn, which in turn affects their ability to become productive members of society. It’s all connected. And Food Network’s special brought that home.
The evening itself was an intimate but typical Hollywood affair. The ever-talented Dana Delaney hosted. Various celebs, including Aaron Sorkin, Hughley, Brian Grazer, gathered to pay their respects to the winners and accept their own accolades. Chicken was served. But it’s the shows themselves that should make cable proud. Is there a lot of bad TV out there? Sure. But it’s important to step back every now and then, and remember that TV’s Golden Age is firmly upon us. Content has never been better. And these shows remind us of TV’s infinite potential to do more than just entertain.