An Award without Ceremony: The Critics' Consensus

Curator's Note

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.



Thanks for your post and for gathering us to talk over media awards shows this week.

Your post is fascinating on a number of fronts. The Patty Duke clip is unsettling, a glimpse of someone unwilling or perhaps bewildered by what she's within. I was also interested on the effects of the Critics' Consensus governing rules on its decisions and its larger societal impact. So many questions to ask. For instance, did the refusal to divide awards by genre mean that drama was privileged over comedy? 

However, what really fired my imagination is the role of the Critics' Consensus in a longer move towards legitimizing television as a cultural form worthy of analysis. Has anyone traced the critical rise of television from early criticism in newspapers (e.g., Jack Gould at the New York Times) and academic work on the subject through to the present day? I imagine a Bourdieu-style field in which the Critics' Consensus would've been most welcome. Who were the players in that field?

When the Critics' Consensus is founded, the first TV studies panels at what was then known as the Society for Cinema Studies were still decades away. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, TV criticism is certainly on the rise. Horace Newcomb's TV: The Most Popular Art and Raymond Williams' Television, Technology and Cultural Form both arrive in 1974 (if memory serves, Newcomb worked as a television critic for newspapers). Was the impact of the Critics' Consensus limited to newspaper criticism? Did the TV industry even notice? Did it have a role in the rise of TV as "serious" subject?

Of course, mentioning Newcomb here leads us to the Peabody Awards, which predates some of the awards shows we've discussed this week (the first Peabody awards were given in 1941). I think the Peabodys serve as another example of critics talking back to the industry writ large. My comments here amount to a desire to trace this talking back to its beginnings. Of course, that would be no small project.

There have been a lot of people to write about the critic's so-called power or influence--numerous Master's theses and dissertations.  The trick with these projects is the amount of text that must be consumed.

My own project is focusing on the 1970s, and I'm still having to read through thousands of documents (thousands for each publication I research), but I'm not sure there's a better way to account for the work of the critic unless you read it daily.

As you note above, I am indeed trying to position the critic within the rise of television studies, though I frame it more as a question of historiography.  It is good to hear you find it interesting, though, cause the research is trying to kill me.  :) 

What intrigues me about the Critics' Consensus is that they were purposefully low key--which means it was more difficult to initiate a public conversation.  There was another, more promiment awards show featuring critics as voters during the year the television academy got a divorce (East versus West coasts), and that show was televised.  But there was a lot of drama--critics refusing to participate (NY Times), critics dropping out, etc.  

What these two efforts lead me to ponder is how much of our bitching about awards shows derives from its presence on television--once an awards show is inserted into an established form of commodity exchange (audience for ad dollars)--is it impossible for the awards show to fulfill its primary function without compromise or taint?

Yet we always come back to your post that started the week--with the distribution power of television, awards programs DO set the conversation.  Sure, we complain about the injustices, but isn't that part of how we develop our sense of value within any media system--through conversation, debate, even anger?  

Awards programs seem a Catch-22, but perhaps a purposeful one.

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