Originally published at http://www.grady.uga.edu on May 19, 2013.
NEW YORK — After more than four decades as a renowned media critic, author, researcher and distinguished professor, Dr. Horace Newcomb entered retirement after hosting his final Peabody Awards Ceremony today at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
Instilled with a passion for media since he was a child, retiring as the Lamdin Kay Chair for the world’s oldest award for electronic media is a fitting end to a distinguished career for Newcomb.
“I grew up with radio and television,” he said. “There were parts of it that changed my experiences and opened new doors for me, and I think it can for other people too.”
Newcomb views media as much more than an entertainment or an information vehicle. “Media is at the center of our society and culture,” he said. “This is the one area where people from different backgrounds begin to share things. This is the place where we tell our stories of who we are and what is important to us.”
This historical and sociological view of media is what led Newcomb to become a prominent media researcher, becoming a human encyclopedia of television. As curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago from 1994-96, he edited the four-volume, 2,600-page Encyclopedia of Television, which contains entries on major people, programs and topics related to television in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The Encyclopedia of Television is the definitive library reference work of first record for the study of television.
“Horace is known in our field as the ‘Father of Television studies,’” said Dr. Ann Hollifield, head of the department of telecommunications at Grady. “He is recognized around the world for his scholarship on media, and particularly, television.”
In addition to the Encyclopedia of Television, Newcomb has authored several other books and scholarly articles on media, particularly focusing on television criticism and history. He has also given lectures in several countries focusing on cultural exchange and international media industries. Newcomb served as longtime television critic for The Baltimore Sun and has been published in multiple mainstream and trade publications.
Even productions developed to entertain audiences can help shape culture Newcomb said, citing the media’s role in the Civil Rights Movement and most recently, the LGBT movement.
“We’re seeing a lot more acceptance of (gay) people today, and I think in large part, television helped that process,” Newcomb said, adding that references of controversial issues in shows force viewers to confront the issue. “Not everyone is going to agree with the way a particular issue is presented, but they have to at least consider it.”
“That’s what I mean when I call television a cultural forum – it’s a place where people have to confront ideas whether they agree or disagree. They have to somewhat engage.”
Although Newcomb is well known as Peabody director and media researcher, teaching has been a part of his career for 45 years. After starting his academic career as an English professor at Iowa’s Cornell College in 1968, Newcomb has taught at six different institutions in English, American studies, sociology and finally mass communication. At a Grady College retirement party for Newcomb and fellow telecommunications professor Stephen Smith, Newcomb joked that Smith is “a good teacher,” while he wasa good teacher – many years ago.
“Horace is the type of mentor every student hopes to find,” said Evan Kropp, a current doctoral assistant for the Peabody Awards. “His door is always open and he is enthusiastically willing to share both his vast knowledge and methods for studying television and the media. The honest, direct and timely feedback he provides is indicative of his desire to see his students learn and perform to their best.”
Former student Kristen Heflin, who earned her Ph.D from Grady in 2010 with Newcomb as a member of her committee, said Newcomb is the model of a good teacher.
“His research laid the foundation for a new field of study, but he encourages his students to carve their own path,” she said. “He challenges me to think harder than I ever thought possible, while reminding me how important it is to actually do something. Horace Newcomb is exactly the kind of teacher I hope to be.”
Another former student, Matt Corn, said Newcomb is an authentic teacher who has that rare ability to connect academics with professionals.
“He garners respect for academics, critics and industry executives alike,” Corn said. “He demonstrates the values of sincerity over cynicism and authenticity over imitation. I count myself fortunate to have a mentor like Horace Newcomb.”
Hollifield said Grady students – especially those who have had the opportunity to work with Newcomb – benefitted tremendously from his knowledge.
“During his years here, he has been an outstanding mentor to both graduate and undergraduate students in our department,” she said. “He will be missed.”
Peabody Award Director
If media is at the center of society, then it’s critical to properly acknowledge the field. While scholars and historians collect its history and gauge its influence, since 1941 the Peabody Awards have been recognizing its excellence.
“The Peabody is at the center of the center,” Newcomb said. “If electronic media still constitutes the collective place where our society and culture can gather and see the stories that tell us about ourselves, somebody should be asking, ‘what are the best of these?’”
Newcomb took over as Peabody chair in 2001 after more than 20 years of teaching at the University of Texas. While at Texas, Newcomb served on the Peabody Board from 1989 to 1995. Although firmly rooted in Austin, Newcomb said his respect and admiration for the Peabody Awards lead him to Athens.
“The Peabody Award is such a special part of the media and public life,” he said. “The Peabody Awards offer an opportunity to speak back to the media industry – to tell them what we think is ‘excellent.’”
Newcomb has been the perfect person to lead the Peabody Board (a group of media scholars, professionals and critics) during judging proceedings, said Joe Urschel, former executive director of the Newseum and chair of the Peabody Board.
“He has an incredible leadership style,” Urschel said. “We have a roomful of people with very strong opinions, and oftentimes are verbally aggressive and we’re going nowhere. Horace will clear his throat, offer the right terse statement, and get us on the right path.”
Although too modest to admit his successes, Newcomb ushered in a critical era of change at the Peabody Awards, both in the program’s physical and virtual presence. Located on the first floor of the journalism building in a small office space, Newcomb began lobbying for new space upon his arrival.
“The space there simply did not reflect the honor and dignity of the award,” Newcomb said, adding that the previous space also presented a challenge as thousands of Peabody entries – then mostly on half-inch videotape – along with monitors, computers and file cabinets would be transported to and from the Georgia Center annually for judging. “In most years something would fall of the truck and get broken.”
With the support of then-Dean John Soloski, the Peabody Awards were moved in 2004 to a renovated, modernized suite, taking up much of the fourth floor of the journalism building. The present location offers the prestigious program a prestigious space.
While working to raise the prominence of Peabody on the UGA campus, Newcomb also extended the reach of the Peabody Awards internationally. Jody Danneman, executive producer of the Awards show, said Newcomb’s efforts have increased the reputation of the awards around the world, evidenced by awards being won by organizations in countries like China, Japan and the Philippines.
“He has steadily guided the Peabody Awards to great prominence, in Athens on campus and throughout the entire world,” Danneman said.
Also under his tenure, the Peabody Awards began recognizing new forms of electronic media, specifically items produced for the web. As a media scholar, Newcomb said he has been fascinated to watch the evolution of this new media.
“Some of the best journalistic work in electronic media is not on one of the old networks, it’s not on CNN, it’s not on Fox – it’s on the web,” Newcomb said, citing 2013 Peabody winner web-specific multimedia piece Snow Fall, produced by John Branch for The New York Times website.
“Horace set the bar for all future directors of Peabody Awards,” said Dr. E. Culpepper Clark, dean of the Grady College. “Arriving here with one of the most distinguished research programs in television studies anywhere, he married scholarship with awards and recognition in a way that had never been done before. We’re all the better for it.”