Almost every acceptance speech at Thursday's inaugural Television Academy Honors dinner started with a statistic: The rise of HIV infection among teenagers; the number of severely wounded soldiers returning from Iraq; the rate of cancer in people under 40; the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease among the elderly.
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' newest kudo (not to be confused with a new Emmy category) aims to honor "television with a conscience." Thursday's gathering at the Beverly Hills Hotel was all about achieving lofty goals and using the electronic soapbox of educate, enlighten, motivate and inform -- but the event itself managed to stay low-key, not too starchy and like a well-produced television program, breezy. (Dinner at 7, program at 8 and we were grabbing the goodie bags by 9:20. Event producer Phil Gurin deserves a kudo for that.)
TV Academy Honors was the brainchild of ATAS chairman and CEO John Shaffner (pictured in center above with recipients David E. Kelley and Dick Wolf), who explained at the start that he felt it was important for the org that recognizes television excellence via the Emmys to also "honor programs for their humanity and their conscience." Event's debut ceremony was dedicated to the memory of Ronnie Lippin, publicist and wife of longtime ATAS publicity rep Dick Lippin. Ronnie Lippin died of breast cancer last year; the TV Acad Honors idea began as an effort to pay tribute to Ronnie Lippin and her work on behalf of numerous charitable causes.
Inaugural kudos, selected by a 22-member committee co-chaired by Shaffner, went to Discovery-BBC's "Planet Earth"; HBO's "Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq"; ABC's "Boston Legal"; Lifetime telepic "Girl, Positive" and series "Side Order of Life"; CNN's "God's Warriors"; "Law & Order: SVU" seg "Harm"; Hallmark Hall of Fame/CBS' "Pictures of Hollis Woods"; and Showtime docu "Shame."
The standing ovation of the night went to the half-dozen servicemen and women in the crowd in connection with "Alive Day Memories." Exec producer Dawn Halfaker (pictured at podium), an Army First Lieutenant who lost an arm during her service in Iraq, recalled being shocked when she was approached by HBO's docu maven Sheila Nevins about getting involved with the project. "I didn't think anyone would be interested in my story," Halfaker said. "I'm just a soldier."
In his turn at the podium, David E. Kelley admitted that he'd always frowned on shows that preached to their aud, yet "Boston Legal" has done its share of suggesting right and wrong in examining topical issues and questions of ethics and morality through the prism of defense attorneys at work.
"It's irresponsible to have a podium of 10 million (viewers) every week and not use it," he said. "How can you not scream, how can you not say 'What the hell is going on'" with all of the problems bearing down on our country and our planet, Kelley said. He added quickly: "We know we lose as many viewers as we get when we do so."
(Kelley wasn't shy about calling out ABC and "Legal" producer 20th Century Fox TV on the injustice of not taking a paid congratulatory ad in the TV Honors program. "Maybe they don't want to be associated with humanity and a conscience," he snarked.)
Margaret Nagle (pictured left), creator/exec producer of "Side Order of Life," clearly enjoyed her moment of vindication for a show that was canceled not long after she was informed by ATAS that the series about a young woman diagnosed with cancer had been selected for the honor. "Where are the Grant Tinkers? The Brandon Tartikoffs?" she mused.
In Nagle's view, TV execs should always remember to maintain a balanced diet on their skeds. "You have one show that gets ratings, and one show that is really important and has an impact on the human soul," Nagle said. "It's part of what TV does."
"Law & Order: SVU" star Chris Meloni wrapped up the night on a light note in presenting the award for the "SVU" seg that was anything but frothy. (Click here to watch a clip via Hulu.) "Harm," penned by staffer Josh Singer, posed the timely question of whether the use of torture is ever justified in with an episode that examined a murder case involving a psychiatrist who'd just returned to the U.S. after working in Iraq on some hard-hitting witness interrogation techniques.
Meloni couldn't get through the first line of the "SVU" preamble ("In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses..."). "You can't make me read this!" Meloni protested, only half-jokingly, before calling to the stage "two emperors and the pope," aka "Law & Order: SVU" exec producers Neal Baer and Ted Kotcheff and the big boss, Dick Wolf (whose ring Meloni kissed before leaving the stage).
Baer (pictured left) gave a nod to NBC for allowing the show to tackle such a thorny, un-sexy issue involving constitutional rights vs. national security.
The country is "involved in a national debate. Is torture ever justified?" Baer said. "That really guaranteed that we got the response (to 'Harm') that we did."