Champion Trailblazers

Recipients of USA Networks' 2011 Character Approved Awards

Recipients of USA Networks' 2011 Character Approved Awards

I watch very little televison. To the extent that I do, I find I'm generally drawn to shows on Bravo, Sundance and PBS. I don't think I've ever spent time watching anything on USA Network, home to shows I'd never even heard of--White Collar, Psych and Fairly Legal, for example--before recently learning about the network's annual Character Approved Awards.

(And by the way, this isn't necessarily a commentary about the intellectual caliber of the television that I do watch. Bravo offers plenty of lowbrow viewing options. I've been known to dabble in Millionaire Matchmaker on occasion. And The Real Housewives of New York City was on my DVR for a while. Before I cut myself off.)

Anyway, the Character Approved Awards came to my attention because one of this year's recipients is artist Vik Muniz, subject of the terrific, Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land. The press release announcing this year's twelve winners--across eleven categories--said:

The Awards pay tribute to the visionaries and real "characters" from a cross-section of creative disciplines who are changing the face of American culture... These exceptional pioneers are making progressive changes in their field through innovation, creativity and a willingness to break the mold.

And, in fact, it's a pretty great list--also including chef Grant Achatz, Blake Mycoskie, founder of Tom's Shoes, documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, design humanitarian Emily Pilloton and a few I hadn't heard of before, including landscape architect Walter Hood and Broadway actress Lily Rabe.

The awards, it turns out, have been around for three years, launching with seven categories in 2009-- architecture, art, fashion, food, giving, music and new media, expanding to include design, film, and writing last year and theatre this year.

Each year they have gone to a kind of amazing cross section of recipients, by gender, race, age and geography. Past recipients have included director Kathryn Bigelow, artist Kehinde Wiley, sustainable architects Angela Brooks and Jennifer Siegal, chef Dan Barber and rapper Lupe Fiasco (whose long-awaited new album is released tomorrow).

I'm not entirely sure how the awards fit into USA Network's overall brand and positioning--they skew more arthouse than mainstream. And maybe that's the point. There's a blog that accompanies the show, but many of the ideas, people and events highlighted aren't quite the same caliber as the award recipients, so there, the concept feels forced.

In any case, I'm always interested in media that champions trailblazers, so the awards are on my radar screen and DVR. I also have my eye on USA Network. I am curious to see if the awards are a harbinger of innovative programming to come.

The hour long show featuring conversations with each of this year's winners, directed by Phil Griffin, airs tomorrow evening, March 8th, at 11 pm Eastern on USA Network. If you haven't seen Waste Land, the film that connected me to Character Approved, it continues to roll into theaters (in the US and internationally) and onto DVD this month. The screening schedule is here.