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September 02, 2009

Story: Second Television Academy Honors Salutes Honorees

A television special that raises millions of dollars for cancer research. Another that helps foster kids find adoptive parents. A documentary about the integration of college football. And a series that spotlights animal rights and conservation.

These were some of the programs recognized at the second annual Television Academy Honors, launched last year to salute television which inspires and educates, yet still engages and entertains: “Television with a conscience,” in the words of John Shaffner.

Now the Academy’s chairman and CEO, Shaffner conceived the idea in 2007 as co-chair of the social outreach Television Cares committee, developing the concept with fellow co-chair Lynn Roth. Co-chairs still, Shaffner and Roth were on hand to welcome attendees at this second ceremony, held April 30 in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Two-time Emmy-winning actress Dana Delany of Desperate Housewives, herself an activist for various causes, hosted the evening, which honored eight programs.

“As we watch television on our cell phones, in the subway, we realize how powerful and far-reaching television can be,” she noted. “[Honoree] Stand Up to Cancer raised $100 million in one night. It was also informative: I personally was humbled to get a breast exam on television [to encourage women to get regular checkups]. Television producers are creating new ways to comment on society and effect change.”

Delany presented the first Honors award, to the FX reality series 30 Days, which shows viewers what it’s like to live someone else’s life for a month. Sometimes, the circumstances are unfamiliar, such as a Navajo reservation where a white man suddenly becomes the minority. Other times, the perspective comes from an opposing viewpoint: a gun control advocate moves in with a sharpshooter’s family.

In his acceptance, creator-executive producer-host Morgan Spurlock described the difficulty he had in getting the show on the air with his pitch: “We’re going to present a show which sees the world through other people’s eyes, and makes [viewers] think.”

FX, though, immediately liked the idea. The show has made a difference, he said, noting that a gay man estranged from his parents for seven years after coming out told Spurlock that he received a call from them fifteen minutes after the airing of a gay/homophobe episode.

After an episode spotlighting living on a minimum wage salary, politicians began calling; the minimum wage was raised a year later. “Thank you,” Spurlock said, “for recognizing that [the show] can matter.”

The next honoree, the tenth annual Home for the Holidays CBS special, raised awareness of the need for adoption by featuring stories of foster children who were adopted.

In its ten years, the show has found homes for 20,000 kids. Celebrity participants included Rene Russo, who went off script as Honors presenter to give an emotional account of one family whose story she had taped for the special, a brother and sister who were adopted together and are now thriving.

She introduced the family in the audience, then returned to the TelePrompTer to laud the special for its “years of achievement in transforming the lives of so many people.”

Accepting were executive producers Karen Mack and Stu Schreiberg. “Foster care is a turbulent world,” Mack said. “In the system, [kids] are almost doomed to failure – less than half complete high school, and 40 per cent wind up homeless. Our show tries to find them families and make them feel safe.” Noted Schreiberg, “We had absolutely no idea of the power of this show when we started.”

The “Prior Commitments” episode of the ABC series Brothers & Sisters, which culminated with the wedding of Kevin Walker and Scotty Wandell, was the third honoree. As co-star-presenter Dave Annable observed, in this show, “Gay characters are not relegated to the background or used for comic relief.” Indeed, “This was the first same-sex union of series regulars on television.”

In acceptance, executive producer Alison Schapker first told the audience that she and her husband had adopted a daughter last year.

“All of us have felt privileged to be telling the story of Kevin and Scotty,” she said. “Their story is essentially a love story. We were aware of the historical element. We were [writing] while anti-gay initiatives loomed all over the country. To legislate against love in any way is truly unconscionable. We’d like to thank everybody who acted on their conscience to support gay marriage.”

Next up: Presenter Keyshawn Johnson, a former football player-turned broadcaster, who observed, “It’s been said that an African-American running back from USC did more for Southern football segregation than anyone.” That athlete, Sam “Bam” Cunningham, was featured in the evening’s fourth honoree, the HBO Sports documentary Breaking the Huddle: The Integration of College Football, part of the series Sports of the 20th Century.

In 1970, Cunningham scored two touchdowns and ran for 135 yards against an all-white team, leading the Trojans to a 42-21 victory over the University of Alabama. The decisive win helped turn the civil rights tide in Deep South college football.

Earlier in the week, Breaking the Huddle had won a Sports Emmy as outstanding sports documentary. Accepting the Academy Honor this night was executive producer Ross Greenburg, who related the story of former Southern Methodist University football star Jerry LeVias, who broke the color barrier there and “fought some fierce battles” in doing so.

After the film aired, LeVias called Greenburg to thank him. “I was very bitter,” he said. “I hadn’t slept well, through the night, for forty years. After I saw the film, I slept. You’ve given me the opportunity to live my life with strength and dignity.”

At a friend’s behest, Greenburg sent the film to the family of an Hispanic athlete who felt segregated, which also helped. “You hear these stories, and you know this is a good medium,” he asserted. “People don’t just watch programs, they live them. Their emotions flow, when it’s done right.”

The fifth Honors winner was the ABC series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition episode “The Martirez & Malek Families.” The Martirez family is raising twin sons with rare disabling genetic disorders; the Makeover team designed a home to accommodate their special needs. Sam Malek was born in Cairo with cerebral palsy.

Two years ago he opened a coffee shop that employs people with disabilities; the team remodeled the shop to better serve them. The award was presented by Joe Mantegna, himself the father of a child with special needs, and Malek, who received a standing ovation as he mounted the podium on crutches.

Malek, who donates part of his coffee shop proceeds to the disability community, issued a heartfelt challenge to the audience:  “The people at Extreme Makeover have helped me expand to help children with autism, Down syndrome, who are deaf. You can buy and sell me in a heartbeat. Are you going to leave here tonight and make a difference in someone else’s world, pay it forward?”

Accepting was Extreme Makeover executive producer Anthony Dominici. “After my family [in New Orleans] was decimated by Katrina, I looked for a show that can make a difference,” he said. “This show really makes a difference. Each week, we build a house. We need a lot of help. That’s where the community steps in.”

Dominici accepted on behalf of builders, vendors, volunteers and ABC personnel, “and mostly, for the families who open up their lives to us, who teach us that we are a community. We have a conscience. We help one another.”

Academy Award winner Kenneth Branagh then took the stage to present the sixth Honor, to the PBS Masterpiece Contemporary film God on Trial.

As inmates at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz wait to learn whether they will live or be gassed, they ponder searing questions: In a universe ruled by a benevolent God, how can this happen? How can God abandon his chosen people? To try to find some answers, they hold a mock trial, a provocative examination of faith and philosophy.

In her acceptance, Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton noted that this day was the sixty-third anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s suicide. The story occasioned by the dictator’s evil “is about the fragility of faith and hunger for dignity, especially in the face of devastation,” she said.

“That’s hard television to watch. You can’t call it entertainment," she surmised. "In fact, it’s ratings poison. It affirms the value of public television. Thank you for recognizing our efforts and encouraging us to keep going.”

The penultimate Honor was presented by actress and animal activist Tippi Hedren to Whale Wars, the Animal Planet series which follows Captain Paul Watson and his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society team on their mission to stop the Japanese whaling trade in Antarctica.

In their boat the Steve Irwin – named for the late conservationist – the captain and crew ram into whaling ships and disperse whaling vessel fleets, risking their lives in the process.

Recognized from the audience, Watson received a standing ovation. The Honor was accepted by Animal Planet president Marjorie Kaplan. “One hundred years ago,” she said, “sailors would stop their vessels to let processions of whales cross in front. Now, the ocean is the scene of intense battles."

"I am thrilled to have this riveting drama on the air, and honored to shine a spotlight on this muscular conservationist," she said. "Last year, the Japanese took five hundred fewer whales because of this sea action. In a world that needs heroes, Captain Paul Watson is one of them.”

The evening’s final honor went to Stand Up to Cancer, the special broadcast simultaneously by ABC, CBS and NBC that raised, as Delany previously noted, $100 million for cancer research.

Presenter Brad Garrett had also participated in the show, having a digital rectal exam on the air to champion early detection. Executive producer Laura Ziskin, he said, “featured celebrities who were survivors. She put a face on it.”

Ziskin, herself a cancer survivor, took the stage with her many producing partners to accept. “We had an idea that television was powerful enough to do the things you heard about tonight,” she said, “and maybe, even powerful enough to cure cancer.”

She asked audience members to raise their hands if they’d been touched by cancer; few remained down.

“Fifteen hundred Americans will die today because of cancer,” Ziskin said. “We wanted to raise tons of money and give it to scientists to collaborate. I don’t know if we’ve saved a life, but all of you have the power of the medium. We have these powers, these skills, these connections. We are calling on all of you to stand up to cancer.”

In closing, Delany thanked everyone “for your commitment to honoring our mission. I hope hearing about these shows has inspired you to continue telling stories that enrich our lives.”

The Academy Television Honors event was produced by The Gurin Company, headed by Phil Gurin.

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