This story first appeared in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Barely more than a twinkle in the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' eye just a decade ago, reality TV now accounts for three separate Emmy races -- despite the fact that the winners never seem to change.
And if repetition breeds disinterest, the main Emmy reality categories -- outstanding reality program, reality-competition program and host for a reality or reality-competition program -- have become a veritable puppy mill of apathy. There's no need for anyone but Survivor host Jeff Probst to jot down a list of people to thank; The Amazing Race executive producers Elise Doganieri and Bertram van Munster know well how to climb the stage, and everyone affiliated with American Idol has accepted they won't need to stand up until the primetime telecast is over.
But it doesn't have to be this way. With some simple changes to voters' approach, one of TV's broadest and most diverse genres could and should generate the same excitement and unpredictability in the Emmy broadcast that it strives to achieve in its programming.
Don't Be Afaid to Break With Tradition
CBS' Sunday night staple Amazing Race is an impressive globe-trotting production that few could argue doesn't deserve its many kudos. But after eight wins in the category's nine years, the accolades are starting to feel a little obligatory. There was a bit of hope in 2010, when Bravo's Top Chef stole the trophy, ending Race's seven-year streak. Yet in 2011, the Race team was back on the stage, with no noticeable shift in either series' programming to explain the change.
"It seemed not so much a startling turn of events as a return to the norm," says academy senior vice president of awards John Leverence. "This year we'll see whether 2011 was just an anomaly." If it was an anomaly, the race could be ripe for a repeat win for Top Chef; first-time gold for perennial nominees American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Project Runway and last year's surprise entry So You Think You Can Dance; or for NBC's hit The Voice.
Address the Music-Competition Conundrum
American Idol, a pioneer of its platform and the most-watched TV series of the century, has notched a nomination every year since the reality category was introduced in 2003. The Fox show has famously never scored a win, and in the wake of 2011's unrewarded and heavily hyped season (and 2012's ratings dip), the title may be out of its grasp forever.
Many posit a stigma against singing competitions among voters, but the TV landscape continues to move in that direction. Fox's The X Factor and NBC's The Voice further complicate a case for an Idol win. (Simon Cowell's younger, shinier X Factor didn't approach Idol in viewership, but the marketing push and recent cast shake-ups have given it a ubiquity after its season wrapped that Idol generally lacks during its own off-season.) And after NBC threw the blistering post-Super Bowl spotlight on The Voice, the sophomore series is likely on the minds of many more voters than it was at this time last year.
This is why the academy should consider giving performing arts series their own unique category. "As the level of competition rises for that kind of programming, there will be greater pressure for veteran shows," says Leverence. By staying lumped with "game play" series like Survivor and Race, Idol and others will likely struggle to maintain their nominations year after year and never gain the kudos they deserve.
Don't Penalize Commercial Success
More so than in the scripted races, the reality contests seem to relish in ignoring mainstream hits. Not since Ozzy and Sharon opened the doors of their Beverly Hills house in 2002 to MTV's voyeuristic audience with The Osbournes -- edging out HBO's Taxicab Confessions, lest you forget -- has a so-called lowbrow effort won outstanding reality program. Yes, Kathy Griffin's My Life on the D-List nabbed wins in 2007 and 2008, but Bravo's pedigree and the comedian's meticulously self-aware steering of the show separated it from traditional celebrity-driven fare.
Since The Osbournes' one-off win in 2002, similarly popular shows like Jersey Shore and E!'s Kardashian family franchise have dominated reality's pop-culture dialogue. They're really no different content-wise from Ozzy's pioneering shtick on MTV -- aside from the fact that they don't stand much of a chance of receiving any Emmy love in 2012.
The shining hope for popularly approved reality is in the growing subgenre of Average Joe-targeted shows like Pawn Stars, Swamp People and Storage Wars -- which could make headway this year given the precedent set by perennial academy favorite Antiques Roadshow. "These other programs share the same entertainment thesis," says Leverence, "which is, 'What is the real value attached to something?' It very well might be that some of those other shows like Pawn Stars and Storage Wars come in because they both deal with essentially the same question -- but in an eccentric, unusual way."
Give Newer Shows a Fair Shake
If the recurrence of winners in the reality categories is a problem, it might have a lot to do with the same group getting nominations every year. The only way to shake up the decision might be to give voters new options -- and 2012 holds a variety of new and familiar series that could stand to edge their way into the race.
"You should never bet against Betty White," Leverence says of NBC's Off Their Rockers, this year submitted for outstanding reality noncompetition program. (The 90-year-old actress recently revived her status as an Emmy darling, notching her fifth win in 2010 for appearing on Saturday Night Live and earning a supporting nomination for Hot in Cleveland last year.)
Another fresh noncompetition entry is AMC's The Pitch, created by Undercover Boss producers Stephen Lambert and Eli Holzman. It's a stylish look inside the world of real "mad men" (and women) as cut-throat advertising execs fight for the business of selling Subway sandwiches.
Put the Hosts in Primetime -- In the Right Way
In 2008, the academy was so excited about adding the category of outstanding reality host, it invited all five nominees -- Tom Bergeron (Dancing With the Stars), Heidi Klum (Project Runway), Howie Mandel (Deal or No Deal), Probst (Survivor) and Ryan Seacrest (American Idol) -- to emcee the festivities. The result was one of the worst reviewed broadcasts in recent memory, but the concept was well intentioned. Which is why it's so odd that the statuette for outstanding reality host -- which has been given to Probst every year since -- is handed out at the tech-heavy, less sexy Creative Arts ceremony held one week before the Primetime Emmys and broadcast on the lesser-seen Reelz Channel.
The reality emcees were obviously popular enough to feature as hosts. So if Seacrest manages to score his first Emmy gold for hosting (he won in 2010 for producing the noncompetition entry Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution) or voters decide that Bergeron's weekly navigation through three hours of Dancing trumps Probst's torch-snuffing, it would be more exciting if that moment weren't sandwiched between art direction and editing awards. But mostly, the host category should also have a place in the Emmys primetime broadcast because it could allow for greater diversity among winners. Voters could likely be more open about nominating new talent if the host prize wasn't buried in a broadcast reality TV fans likely aren't watching.
OTHER NONFICTION SERIES CONTENDERS
- Frozen Planet (Discovery Channel)
- Locked Up Abroad (National Geographic Channel)
- Beyond Scared Straight (A&E)
- The Weight of the Nation (HBO)
- American Masters (PBS)