Regard for Reality

Aug 16, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

As new reality shows continue to pop up on virtually every broadcast and cable network, this proliferation is changing the foundations of the television industry.

The Emmys are now ready for them.

In keeping with its mandate to offer category groupings suitable for every current TV genre, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has created a new category and tweaked others in response to the reality trend.

“You’ve got to hand it to the academy for staying on top of this,” said Carolyn Finger, VP, TV Tracker, a research and consulting service. “These shows are done by professionals and they deserve to be recognized in the Emmy competition. This is a reflection of how program schedules are evolving. I wish the guilds would get on the same bandwagon.”

The winner of this year’s new category, outstanding reality-competition program, will be revealed on the Sept. 19 Emmy telecast, one week after the award for outstanding reality program-formerly outstanding nonfiction program (reality)-is announced during the nontelevised presentation.

The difference between the two is now defined and clear. A reality program is one, according to the Emmy book of rules and procedures, “in which the premise, circumstances or situations are manipulated for the purpose of creating the program.” The category also includes both “unscripted reality programs and docu-soaps.”

A reality-competition program adds the element of a prize, a contest or a competition, according to the new rules.

“They’ve added these categories because there are now enough shows to qualify,” said Tom O’Neil, an Emmy historian whose longtime Web site, Goldderby.com, chronicles the major entertainment awards. “The universe had to get to six to 10 of them in order to field a category holding five.”

Like many of the ever-evolving Emmy categories, the reality program awards have a long history, but one that has accelerated in the past two years as the genre seemingly exploded from nowhere.

The most recent ancestor of the reality program awards and their counterpart, the nonfiction program awards, are the Emmys for outstanding informational series and outstanding information special. Both of these were “area awards,” meaning they were what John Leverence, longtime VP, awards, at the academy called, “an orphanage for programming that doesn’t fit anywhere else.”

“These were hodgepodge categories,” said Mr. O’Neill, “places where you’d see some reality or nonfiction series up against the `Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,’ and the audience would say, `Huh?”‘

Last year reality-competition programs in the special class area found themselves up against a tribute to Bob Hope and the annual American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement special. It was then that the ATAS board of governors knew it had to take action.

In special class categories there is the possibility that multiple awards, or no award, will be given. The fact that reality shows now have their own categories means they definitely will be honored, though the grouping still seems a diverse bunch.

“To try to merge the different kinds of reality shows into two categories creates categories where it isn’t just a case of apples and oranges, but grapefruits and papayas as well,” Mr. O’Neil said.

The outstanding reality program nominees this year include PBS’s “Colonial House,” Showtime’s “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!,” HBO’s “Project Greenlight,” ABC’s “Extreme Makeover,” and Bravo’s “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

The latter two are style shows. “Greenlight” deals with young filmmakers getting a chance to shoot their movie. “Colonial House” features families spending five months living as our American Revolution-era forefathers did. Penn & Teller’s program debunks magic tricks and assumptions of modern life and history.

Similarly, in the outstanding reality-competition program category, Fox’s “American Idol” and NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” have performance elements, while CBS’s “Amazing Race” and “Survivor” revolve around physical endurance, and NBC’s “Apprentice” calls for “contestants” to work for a famously gruff business mogul.

While the term “reality show” is one that has entered the TV lexicon, what separates “Last Comic Standing” from the many series that feature wall-to-wall performances by comedians seems to be little more than the prize at the end.

“It does seem that some of these shows have elements that might put them in competition in other kinds of categories,” Mr. Leverence said. “I could see where you would look at `American Idol’ and think, `Well, isn’t that a variety show?’ But the emphasis of these programs is on a victory, on a bag of gold at the end of the rainbow, where the rainbow is the show.”

In doing an overview of the reality sector, Mr. Leverence throws two other categories that have emerged in the past three years into the mix: outstanding nonfiction special and outstanding nonfiction series. These are for “documentaries, information programs, investigative programs, biographies and retrospectives,” and also shows that once competed in the Informational categories.

When it comes to the technical categories, the reality and nonfiction programs are mixed together. So in outstanding sound editing for nonfiction programming (single or multiple camera), for example, the sound professionals for the reality series “The Apprentice” are competing this year with PBS’s “Judy Garland by Myself,” Discovery’s “Dinosaur Planet” and HBO’s “Jockey” and “Three Sisters: Searching for a Cure.”

The academy has a specific 625-member nonfiction peer group for those who work in the genre, from associate producers to writers. Membership in this group is based on working in the area for two full years within a four-year window. A writer who works on reality or nonfiction series may not qualify to be in the traditional writers’ peer group, for example.

Except for the program categories, which are chosen by the entire academy membership in the first-round nominations, it is this peer group that chooses nominees and eventual winners for reality show categories. Its growing size is another reason the academy has altered its awards to accommodate the changes in the TV landscape.

However intricate or at times confusing the categories and peer group distinctions might be, there is support for the modifications among the industry.

“I think it’s very smart of the academy to keep changing, keep evolving to recognize excellence,” said Jacoba Atlas, PBS’s senior VP and co-chief program executive.

“The changes the academy has made this year are reasonable and warranted,” said Bill Carroll, VP, director of programming, Katz Television Group. “It would be foolish of them to ignore reality shows. They are now an integral part of every network’s schedule. They have done a good job in addressing the matter.”