The NAACP Image Awards is undergoing some major changes this year in an effort to remain relevant and contemporary.
Organizers moved up the ceremony, in its 49th incarnation, to take place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January instead of during Black History Month or in March when it has previously taken place.
And for the first time in the Image Awards’ history, everyday fans have been allowed to vote for their favorite nominees in 36 categories spanning film, television and music. The show will air live on TV One, as it has since 2014, with “Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson returning as host.
Of the two alterations, the decision to align with the MLK holiday is the most organic and pragmatic.
“With the Super Bowl, Winter Olympics, NBA All-Star Game and other award shows, February became a very crowded month in terms of television broadcasting,” says Leonard James III, committee chairman of the NAACP Image Awards. “We looked at what we could do to create a timeslot that would be associated with the NAACP and that became Monday, Jan. 15, the King holiday.”
The diverse offering has bounced around all over the calendar throughout the years. During a 10-year span starting in 1980, the Image Awards took place in December. There were even a couple of years when the ceremony occurred in April. The awards show didn’t land on TV until 1994 when Fox aired it, and even then, the first live broadcast didn’t take place until 2007.
“What better way to allow our country to end a day of celebration and service honoring Dr. King than to tune in to the NAACP Image Awards?” James says. “It was a natural choice.”
While this year’s ceremony might feel rushed to some, many applaud the NAACP for choosing a day with greater meaning.
“Moving the awards up to a holiday that is focused on civil rights and the breaking down of prejudice against people of color makes sense,” says Eric Deggans,
NPR TV critic and author of “Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.”
“At its heart, the Image Awards were conceived as a way to honor people of color who were overlooked by white-dominated, mainstream entertainment awards,” Deggans adds. “So announcing winners on a day celebrating a civil-rights leader who fought for racial equality in all areas of American life seems apt.”
“Ghostbusters” star Ernie Hudson, nominated in the supporting actor in a comedy series category for his role on Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie,” agrees.
“Martin Luther King led the drive thoroughly and consistently to pioneer opportunities; we’re following up on that by achieving excellence in film, television, music and literature,” Hudson says. “It’s fitting that the Image Awards are now being held on Martin Luther King Day.”
The timing also helps to position the NAACP as a trailblazer when it comes to awarding those who are worthy, but possibly overlooked, Deggans says.
“The winners will be announced too late to affect voting on the nominees, but in plenty of time to call attention to possible winners Oscar voters might not have considered so strongly,” he says. “By announcing winners before the Oscar nominees are announced, perhaps they’ll get a little more attention from the press. It seems like a worthwhile experiment, at least.”
Several factors played a part in the kudoscast’s shift to predominantly open voting, including TV ratings and new members of the organization, James says.
“We had an entertainer of the year category that the general public voted on,” he says. “Out of that came a lot of input from general public voters who wondered how they could be more involved and have more participation. Many who voted for entertainer of the year became members and it stimulated new interest in the live telecast. This also led to an increase in information about the Image Awards as well as the work that the NAACP does.”
The move has drawn praise and criticism in the African-American community.
Regina Gaines is excited about open voting and hopes it sticks around. The former NAACP member says there’s a legitimate need for younger constituents who will keep the organization alive.
“The NAACP as a whole has a lot of members in their 60s and older who vote for the same usual candidates every year,” says Gaines, an entrepreneur who owns House of Pure Vin, a Detroit wine store. “Open voting allows the NAACP to expand and attract a larger audience. It’s like the People’s Choice Awards for African-Americans.”
“The NAACP is authentically allowing the people to decide,” says New Jersey-based publicist Rachel Noerdlinger. “It’s appropriate on the 50th year since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., died that the NAACP celebrates the momentous contributions of people of color. Kudos to its leadership.”
Everyday voters are still excluded from certain categories. For instance, subcommittees for the literature categories required voters to have read at least a dozen newly released books. Those on the directing subcommittee, meanwhile, had to have ties to the Directors Guild of America and view all the necessary screeners in time to vote.
But isolating 18 categories out of 54 that the public cannot access still does little to preserve the sanctity the Image Awards had before open voting, says Kyle Winkfield, a contributor on WUSA-TV, a CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., and Maryland financial expert.
“There’s something to be said for ‘members only,’ Winkfield says. “In theory, it’s great to bring awareness to the awards. But it remains to be seen if these voters have a vested interest in furthering the goals and mission of the NAACP.”
James says celebrities have been nothing but positive about this year’s changes.
“Many years ago, the Image Awards were actually created in a time when people of color were not recognized by the major award shows,” James says. “The show was a way of creating excitement and that hasn’t changed. To this day, our nominees and awardees hold a special place in their hearts for the Image Awards and the alignment it has during awards-show season.”