By Noel Holston
It won’t do to call retiring Peabody Awards director Horace Newcomb “Mr. Peabody.” That designation already attaches to the award’s namesake, philanthropist George Foster Peabody, not to mention a certain erudite canine who hung out in the same cartoon realm as Bullwinkle J. Moose and Dudley Do-Right.
“Mr. Television” won’t do, either. Milton Berle acquired that nickname around the same time that young Horace Newcomb’s family was getting its first TV set.
That leaves “Mr. Television Studies,” which may not be as zingy but does well suit the courtly scholar from Mississippi who built a resume that made him the ideal overseer of the classiest, most revered prize for TV, radio and other electronic media that there is or ever will be.
Newcomb, 70, didn’t single-handedly invent television studies, but he advanced and formalized the field with a blueprint book, TV: The Most Popular Art, first published by Doubleday in 1974. It influenced a generation of academics, critics and viewers.
In a 1977 critique in The Georgia Review, MIT professor David Thorburn called it “a pioneering book, establishing beyond argument that television drama is an aesthetic territory whose significance for our culture will remain inaccessible until we have learned to study it with the same care and attentiveness we bring to the study of literature, music and film.”
David Bianculli, resident TV critic of public radio’s Fresh Air and editor of the online magazine www.tvworthwatching.com, said the book had an “immeasurable” impact on him when he was a journalism student at the University of Florida. “Horace made writing about TV seem not only worthwhile, but maybe worth dedicating a career to pursuing.”
Nowadays, no one bats an eye at the notion that television programs merit serious critical consideration. The Sopranos, The Wire, House of Cards, they’re novels, literature, art – duh! Newcomb, however, filed his brief when the leading exponents of episodic drama were still Bonanza and Mannix.
He didn’t set out to become a television scholar, much less take over the care and feeding of electronic media’s oldest awards program. He had a fairly typical TV childhood. His folks got their first set, a 21-inch Zenith, in 1952, and he remembers watching the Friday night fights and Life with Luigi and, later, Gunsmok e and Have Gun – Will Travel and dramatic anthologies like Playhouse 90. But during his four years as an English major at Mississippi College (1960-64), he barely watched TV at all.
It wasn’t until he was working on his Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Chicago in the late ’60s that he began to reassess the medium he had grown up with and that had afforded him a life-changing introduction to a wider world.
“Matt Dillon and Joe Friday instructed me to beware the use of violence,” he writes in his director’s message on the Peabody Awards website (www.peabodyawards.com). “ Buzz and Tod suggested I get out of town whenever possible, preferably on Route 66. The Defenders taught me about social justice with ideas and perspectives far broader than those around me. Documentaries and news reports focused on the Civil Rights Movement offered a direction I might otherwise never have known – and challenged me to go that way.”
Newcomb recalled that his first popular culture courses “were basically genre courses. I would do a spy novel, a spy movie and a spy TV show – if I had access to a television. In a lot of English and humanities departments, this was dismissed as trivial. It was alright to teach popular culture if you taught against it, if you said it was corrupt. If you were in any way celebratory – not even celebratory – if you were just open and optimistic about it, you were a dupe.
“In the early ’70s and even later than that, even among people who taught film and other pop culture things, TV was sort of the bottom rung because it was so commercial, so limited. My work has always been on the borderline because I was much more favorable to television than other (academic) people were.”
What Newcomb came to understand – and defended persuasively in The Most Popular Art – was if you started from the premise that television was “a pretty complicated medium,” you’d discover that even the simplest, most formulaic entertainment series could have something to tell us about who we were or dreamed of being.
His lengthy post-doctoral resume includes a year as the Baltimore Sun’s TV critic, editing the Museum of Broadcast Communications’ exhaustive, four-volume Encyclopedia of Television and seven editions of Television: The Critical View, all while teaching classes, foremost in a long stint on the faculty at the University of Texas.
In retrospect, it would appear that he trained for the Peabody directorship. In reality, he had only a passing familiarity with the University of Georgia program – launched in the late 1930s to encourage higher-minded radio programming – until he was invited in 1989 to join the 15-member board that selects each year’s winners during a week of lively deliberations that resemble jury-room scenes from 12 Angry Men.
“When I came in for the first time and saw the discussions, I realized immediately how significant it was and how I wanted to participate,” he said. “They were the best discussions I’d ever had about media. Academic discussions were much narrower and less interesting. When I went off the board six years later, there was a feeling of loss. So, when the opportunity came to come back and direct the program, it was exciting.”
Newcomb assumed stewardship of the program in 2001, following the death of Barry Sherman. He’s only the fourth director in the awards’ 72-year history. Fittingly, his successor-to-be, Old Dominion professor and author Jeffrey P. Jones, is a disciple of sorts, one of the hundreds of young educators and theorists who’ve been in his classes or at least learned from his books.
Under Newcomb’s guidance, the Peabody Awards has embraced the internet as a fresh source of original programming, expanded its international reach – 2012 entries came from 17 different countries, including Poland, Japan and Kenya – and become more open and agile in responding quickly to cutting edge work.
Perhaps more important, he has been an eloquent, passionate advocate for the program and its mission, both at the annual presentation luncheon in New York and in countless little stump speeches at smaller events.
He knows that he is who he is thanks in part to the very sort of “excellent” programming the Peabodys celebrate, and he is ever ready, willing and able to speak up, to testify, on its behalf. He gives new, different meaning to the term televangelist.
“Excellence is rare,” Newcomb said. “Always was, always will be. We should always be looking for the best.”
Mr. Television Studies knows whereof he speaks.