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The Reality of Honoring Reality

Sep 15, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The reviews are in on ABC’s “Reality Awards,” and the show doesn’t even have a final title yet.
Critics started roasting the concept as soon as the show was announced this month, and at least one heavyweight competitor, whose participation would seem imperative, is openly skeptical.
Still, ABC, which plans to air the awards as a two-hour special by the end of the year, said the concept will have strong appeal to reality’s considerable fan base.
“We want to bring viewers the reality stars they want to see, the reality moments they want to see, and do it in a fun and entertaining way,” said Andrea Wong, ABC’s senior VP of alternative series and specials. “And if we do that well, it should be a great show.”
Ms. Wong noted that six of the top-10 network series in the 2002-03 season were reality programs.
Also, every successful reality program initially met some degree of critical eye-rolling when announced. Perhaps that’s why, sight unseen, critics are already sharpening their pens against the “Reality Awards.” Noting the show is two-hours and “will celebrate the best in reality television,” a Washington Times critic quipped, “So how are they going to fill the remaining hour and 53 minutes?” A Philadelphia Daily News writer simply asked “Why?” then answered her own question: “This is probably the only shot [at an award] `Are You Hot?’ is ever going to get.”
Critical jabs aside, a more crucial concern is how much cooperation ABC can expect from rival networks. Though producers said initial reaction from competitors has been generally positive, NBC Executive VP of Alternative Programming Jeff Gaspin said his network is still considering the issue.
“[A reality awards show] has been pitched many, many, many, many times, by many, many, many, many producers,” Mr. Gaspin said. “I’m personally tired of [the idea of] another awards show, and we haven’t made a decision on whether we’ll participate. We’re all so competitive now that I don’t know if it makes sense for us to give them anything.”
One key to gaining access to talent and footage is convincing rivals that the “Reality Awards” will not have a bias toward ABC programming.
Luckily for ABC, the “Reality Awards” (with a subtitle yet to be decided) is being produced by eight-time Emmy Award telecast director-producer Don Mischer, who adds credibility to the project. Though the Emmys have devoted an “area” award to reality shows this year, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has yet to embrace the genre with its own competition category.
“[An unbiased show] is absolutely imperative,” Mr. Mischer said. “The last thing ABC wants is to have anybody accuse them of being biased. So the system has got to be foolproof.”
ABC is putting together an industry panel of about 200 to select the nominees. Winners will be selected by viewers, who will vote online.
“The most important thing to us is that it’s fair,” Ms. Wong said.
The bias concern applies not only to the nomination and voting process but also to the selection of categories that could favor certain shows.
Serious and Flippant
If the “Reality Awards” gains rival cooperation, a second potential stumbling block is that-unlike other prime-time awards broadcasts-the show will not draw high-wattage stars. Though some reality show participants gain notoriety, few managed to extend their fame beyond the duration of their show.
When the “Reality Awards” air, will viewers care what “Survivor: Australian Outback” alumnus Jerri Manthey wears on the red carpet? Does anybody want to see “Joe Millionaire’s” Evan Marriott mumble through an acceptance speech?
“`The Real World’ reunion was a significantly rated show,” noted “Reality Awards” producer Charlie Haykel. “We’re bringing back people you haven’t seen in a while, and I hope there’s a curiosity factor now.”
The tone of the “Reality Awards” will be closer to an MTV award show than a traditional broadcast event, though producers said there will also be moments of sincerity.
“We have to walk a line between having some awards that are prestigious, desirable and straight-ahead and other awards that are more fun that viewers around the country will really get a kick out of,” Mr. Mischer said.
Thus far, producers have chosen five “serious” categories for the show, such as Best Series and Best Host. More flippant categories are still being discussed, but candidates include Best Meltdown, Biggest Drama Queen, Most Disgusting Moment, Hottest Hook-Up, Best Schemer and Best Twist. To avoid a potential podium parade of producers, sources said the majority of categories will award on-camera talent.
Still undecided is what form the award will take (a fishbowl and a microscope have been considered) and who will host (probably comic talent from one of the networks).
At least one faction has embraced the “Reality Awards” with unbridled enthusiasm. All sides report that reality TV producers have been extremely receptive to the project.
“I was pleasantly surprised to hear about it,” said Bertram van Munster, creator and executive producer of “The Amazing Race.” “Hopefully, something like this has legs, because reality has done a lot for television. It has, in many ways, changed television as we know it.”
Michele Greppi contributed to this report.