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October 20, 2009

Launching the Television Academy Honors

Libby Slate

First Lt. Dawn Halfaker presents the honor
for Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq

In her acceptance speech at the inaugural Television Academy Honors ceremony May 1, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Dawn Halfaker recalled that when she was asked to participate in the program now being recognized, “I thought, ‘Why would they want me in the film? I’m just a soldier.’”

Hardly. For Halfaker now wears a right-arm prosthesis from the shoulder down; she was one of ten soldiers and marines featured in the stirring HBO documentary Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq, all discussing the day they almost died in the war, i.e., their “alive day.”

Whether the subject matter is the decimation of war, the ravages of disease, the horrors of gang rape, the wonders of nature or the power of friendship, television has an unmatched power to depict socially relevant issues with insight and imagination.
Paying tribute to programming which engages viewers while at the same time educating and inspiring them to action was the motivation behind the newly created Television Academy Honors; Alive Day Memories was one of nine programs saluted.
The 2007 brainchild of John Shaffner, the cochair of the Academy’s social outreach Television Cares committee who is now also Academy chairman and CEO, to recognize what he terms “television with a conscience,” the Honors were developed by Shaffner and Television Cares cochair Lynn Roth.

he awards’ evolution took on a personal, poignant component after the breast cancer death of Ronnie Lippin, wife of Academy public relations executive Dick Lippin: Following a conversation between her widower and then-Academy chair Dick Askin, it was decided to dedicate the Honors event to Ronnie, who had been actively involved in humanitarian causes, to celebrate her and raise awareness about breast cancer.

Producer David E. Kelly, Television Academy
Chair John Shaffner, gala co-chair Lynn Roth
and producer Dick Wolf.

Held in the Crystal Room of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the ceremony began with heartfelt welcomes by Shaffner and Roth.

Television journalist Lisa Ling, noted for her global reporting on just the sort of issues being spotlighted by the Honors, then took to the podium as host.

“Television has always been unafraid to bring controversial subjects into our homes,” Ling noted.

“One can’t look back on the early days of television and ignore the legacy of such groundbreaking television as See It Now.” The programs being honored this night, she added, “dare to transform rather than conform. They dare to inspire and motivate.”

Ling presented the first Honors award – a glass globe etched with digital representations of the continents, adorned by a silver star and mounted on an aluminum base – to the Discovery Channel series Planet Earth. The eleven-part, Emmy Award-wining series, five years in the making, turned a high-definition spotlight on animals and their habitats around the world.

Filmmakers rose to such challenges as living among cockroaches for a month to capture footage of bats in a Borneo cave, and enduring subzero temperatures to film Emperor penguins in the Antarctic.

“From the very first production meeting, the goal was to create an awe-inspiring series never before seen,” Discovery Channel development vice president Jeffrey Hasler said in his acceptance speech. “[Writer-narrator] David Attenborough said, ‘You have to make [viewers] fall in love with the world.’ To be honored in this way is so humbling.”

Next up: the ABC series Boston Legal, recognized for its consistent tackling of such newsworthy issues as the continuing plight of Hurricane Katrina victims, euthanasia and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays.

Presenting the Honor to creator-executive producer-primary writer David E. Kelley was star James Spader, whose impassioned courtroom speeches on such issues, delivered as attorney Alan Shore, have won him two Emmys for the show. Saying that he, too, was “humbled” by the company in which he found himself, Spader mentioned the characters’ “problem with authority,” particularly that asserted by politicians named Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Said Kelley in acceptance, “We do fancy ourselves the town crier in confronting the social, moral and legal issues of the day. I’ve always frowned on producers using their shows as a soapbox – and now I do it all the time! It’s become almost irresponsible to have a podium of ten million viewers and not scream, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Girl, Positive, a Lifetime movie about a high school student who becomes infected with HIV after her first sexual experience, was the evening’s third honoree. Presenter/star Andrea Bowen informed the audience that “half of all new HIV infections occur in people under age 25.

This movie works hard to dispel the myths of HIV, including how it is and isn’t contracted, and takes a frank look at teen sexuality.” In accepting, executive producer Robert Sertner said, “Every day in America, 50 teenagers are infected because of [the schools’] message of ‘Abstinence only.’ We set out to make a movie to give kids the message, if they’re responsible, they don’t have to die. That message is getting out.”

The presentation to Alive Day Memories followed, beginning with a standing ovation by the audience for the members of all five military branches in attendance. As presenter Benito Martinez of FX’s The Shield then stated, “For the first time in American history, 90 per cent of the [war] wounded are surviving, but a greater percentage are returning with post-traumatic stress disorder, amputations and brain injuries.”

James Gandolfini of The Sopranos had visited some of the wounded at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and wanted to make a documentary about them, but when the hospital refused to allow filming, HBO’s Sheila Nevins instead focused on those already discharged.

The Television Academy Honor was accepted by co-executive producer Alexandra Ryan and supervising producer Sara Bernstein along with Halfaker. The soldier had come to realize, she said, that “I represent a lot of people who didn’t have the opportunity to tell their stories, of their sacrifices and their families’ sacrifices. I’m very, very honored to be here.”

Leeza Gibbons, whose mother has Alzheimer’s disease and who lost her grandmother to the illness, presented the evening’s fifth award to the CBS Hallmark Hall of Fame production, Pictures of Hollis Woods.

The film is about a young girl who becomes a caregiver when her foster mother, played by Sissy Spacek, develops the debilitating disease. Producer Dan Paulson said in acceptance, “I’m grateful to be able to entertain, educate and enlighten the television audience. That’s, ultimately, what it’s all about. Thank you very much.”

The sixth program recognized was CNN’s six-hour special God’s Warriors, which examines, as presenter Steven Weber said, “the volatility that erupts when religious fundamentalism meets politics. [The program] attempts not to judge, but to explain the sometimes fanatical religious warriors of God.”

The award was accepted in person by CNN managing editor Kathy Slobogin and CNN Productions vice president and senior executive producer Mark Nelson, with a taped acceptance in Rwanda from host Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent. “It’s exceptionally meaningful that [the award recognizes] television with a conscience,” Amanpour said. “We’re here to continue the kind of work that has made you honor us.”

Swoosie Kurtz of ABC’s Pushing Daisies presented the global statuette to the Lifetime series Side Order of Life, a drama about the friendship between two young women, one with cancer and one without, and how each is affected by the diagnosis. As Kurtz said, ‘[The character] Vivy Porter is the first in television history who is accurately depicted as not being victimized” by cancer.

The award was accepted by series creator-executive producer Margaret Nagle, who noted that she received word of the series’ Academy recognition and network cancellation within three hours of each other.

“One in three people get cancer, so it seemed there was a way to write about it that was deeper,” she said. And viewers responded, sending mail saying Vivy was their hero, and that “they refused to let cancer define them.” Nagle dedicated her award to Edward R. Murrow, because, she said, “He believed so deeply in the power of this medium to inspire, to lift people up.”

Lisa Ling presented the night’s penultimate award, to the Showtime special Shame, the story of Pakistani peasant Mukhtaran Mai, who was publicly gang-raped in retribution for her brother’s alleged molestation of a woman. Instead of killing herself, as shamed women were expected to do, Mai had the men arrested. She has since helped build her village’s first schools, to provide girls an education.

Accepting were producer-writer-director Mohammed Ali Naqvi and producer Jill S. Schneider. “This film is a journey for us for five years,” Naqvi said, “from the week after [the rape] when we met Mukhtaran in her mud hut to [her being named] one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People."

"What was really important for me was making the story of how one person can make a difference," Naqvi continued. "I wanted to show a woman from my part of the world who isn’t oppressed and meek, but who is strong. We’re lucky we live in a country where we can do anything.”

The final Honor was presented by Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star Christopher Meloni for an episode of his NBC series, “Harm,” which asks the provocative question, is torture ever justified?In the eyes of the episode’s main character, an American physician training mercenaries to torture suspected terrorists, the answer is yes.

The award was accepted by series creator-executive producer Dick Wolf and executive producers Neal Baer and Ted Kotcheff. “This is really an honor, to be here for this award of conscience, which is rare,” Wolf said. Added Baer, “Our writers take on topics rarely seen on television, except on Boston Legal. We’re grateful to NBC for letting us do this.”

At evening’s end, it was clear from the speeches and the buzz in the ballroom that the Academy Honors had been embraced by recipients, participants and attendees alike – a warm welcome indeed into the Television Academy’s awards family.

Academy art director Scott Buford designed the Honors award with Zach Koenig, a designer for R.S. Owens, the company that manufactures the Primetime Emmy Awards. The Academy Television Honors event was produced by The Gurin Company, headed by Phil Gurin. Producing for the Television Academy was Barbara Chase.

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