Emmys: Evolving formats a tough reality

The cast of Jersey ShoreThe Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has received a lot of criticism from the TV industry over the past decade for the way the Emmys have dealt with the explosion in reality and unscripted programming. Primary among the gripes are the fact there are too few categories, too many contenders, and too much of a one-size-fits-all framework.

"Everything is simply too lumped together for Emmy consideration," charges one reality TV producer. "You're putting Jersey Shore in the same category as Storage Wars. It makes zero sense."

In defense of the academy, it hasn't been easy keeping up with all of the sub-categories and sub-genres that have evolved since the unscripted boom began. And as primetime has changed, it's worked to keep up. It added the Outstanding Reality Program category in 2001, Reality-Competition Program in 2003 and Reality Host in 2008. That's in addition to categories honoring top Nonfiction Series and Nonfiction Special.

And in May, the TV Academy's Board of Governors voted to approve the creation for the first time of a Reality Peer Group. The move "speaks volumes for the academy's sense of importance and critical mass that reality has achieved as an industry," believes John Leverence, the academy's longtime senior VP of awards.

The denigration aimed at the academy over how it groups and measures reality programming remains a hot button for Leverence. He stresses that the notion that there isn't a depth of commitment to adequately recognizing the unscripted world is "a misperception. Going back to honoring Arnold Shapiro for Scared Straight in 1979, there's been a presence and a place within the Emmy Awards for reality programming."

Perhaps part of the problem has been in the fact that there was only one significant reality category (Reality-Competition) in the primetime telecast until 2008, when Host joined the mix. Too, the fact that one show has so dominated serves to spur resentment, with The Amazing Race taking home the Reality-Competition trophy seven years in a row and eight of the past nine. At the same time, television's most popular series of the reality era, American Idol, has been shut out.

Grouses one producer: "You have to ask yourself if Amazing Race winning every time maybe has something to do with Jerry Bruckheimer's being attached to it."

Lauren Lexton, co-founder and executive producer for Authentic Entertainment — which produces a roster of shows including Toddlers & Tiaras, Ace of Cakes and the real estate-themed Flipping Out — has never seen one of her programs earn an Emmy nom. Yet every year, she holds out hope that Flipping Out in particular will get acknowledged.

"I guess I just really don't understand how the categories are comprised and the competitions are judged," Lexton says. "I think maybe more specificity would be a good idea, so you know what you're up against. I mean, you've got auction shows grouped with docu-soaps and History Channel-type shows. It's a very big canvas you're talking about."

To be sure, the Reality Program grouping has seen some radically different types of winners lately, from Discovery's Deadliest Catch to ABC's Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution to A&E's Intervention to Bravo's Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List. The sheer breadth of contenders is both blessing and curse for the academy, which is at once praised and slammed for the diversity.

Leverence likes to point out some numbers that he believes brings the situation into clearer focus. He notes that there will likely be somewhere between 35 and 40 entries this year for Reality-Competition and roughly 80 for Reality Program, which correlates statistically with the number for Outstanding Comedy Series (some 55 to 60 entries) and Drama Series (around 80 or 85).

"If you say there is a tremendous amount of traffic in the reality area and a need to open up more categories, then you'd really have to make the same argument in comedy and drama," Leverence stresses. "In fact, a better argument could be made for comedy series last year, when the category was so disparate in terms of the kind of programming with everything from Nurse Jackie to The Big Bang Theory."

In terms of both category and individual achievement awards, the Emmys are now adequately representing the worlds of both reality and documentary, Leverence maintains. When all of the reality-themed categories (including technical merit) are added up, they come to 10, or some 10% of the 99 categories in the entire competition. "Considering we started 15 years ago with zero for reality, it's not an insignificant number," he adds.

But some producers continue to dispute the apples-and-oranges measurement they're forced to endure when submitting for Emmy consideration. "You're telling me that a comedy like (NBC's) Betty White's Off Their Rockers is competing in the same category as a hardcore adventure like Deadliest Catch?" asks one reality exec producer. "How do you compare that kind of stuff? I honestly don't get it."

Ray Richmond is a contributor to AwardsLine

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