This clip from the 1970 Emmy Awards evokes a reaction from any viewer. Whether you know of Patty Duke's struggles with mental illness, it seems clear here that this is a person uncomfortable with her surroundings. Duke's bizarre behavior reveals that the joviality and glamour that surrounds her is not natural but rather a carefully constructed facade.
Can you imagine, instead, an awards ceremony without that insistence on glamour? Without the stars, giddy speeches, and bad jokes? What if a large group of nominees resulted in one solitary award, one program from all those aired in an entire year deemed worthy of commendation?
This describes the Critics’ Consensus [CC], an award-granting organization created by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Harry Harris in 1966, composed of twelve to eighteen major-market, newspaper-employed television critics from across the country. As described by critic and CC member Cecil Smith in the Los Angeles Times, the Critics’ Consensus was an “antidote” to the Emmy Awards—so much so that they announced the CC awards only days after the Emmy program aired.
A number of things aside from the critics’ control of these awards set the CC apart. The winners received only a letter in the mail and an acknowledgement in the member critics’ newspapers. The critics did not distinguish between programs based on genre: news programs competed on the same ground as children’s programs and dramatic serials. Most unique, perhaps, was the requirement that a program must earn a two-thirds (2/3) consensus from the critics to win.
Though “consensus” is an optimistic term, it ended up being difficult to achieve. In three separate years, the CC critics were able to come to a consensus about only one program. While Cecil Smith suggested this meager praise said more about hard-to-please critics than about television programming, I’d like to offer a different interpretation. Media awards exist to prop up industries—they declare significance, identify excellence, reward those that play by the rules, and remind audiences of how distant yet desirable is this unattainable world of perfection. In its brief lifetime of ten years, the CC granted only 27 awards, fewer than would typically be granted in one year at the Emmys. Perhaps the lesson of the Critics’ Consensus is that they missed the point (demonstrated by Ms. Duke)—the awards are beside the point. The ceremony, the ritual, the renewal—that is the true industrial function of the industry of media awards.