Eye on the Emmys: Reality Awards’ Growing Pains

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Betty Goodwin

Special to TelevisionWeek

Just how challenging has it been for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to establish current awards categories for the booming reality programming genre?

“The nonfiction branch just about had a double hernia trying to figure out how to do this,” said John Leverence, senior VP of awards for ATAS. “It was very, very difficult to sort through the Emmy categories,” he said.

This year marks the third consecutive year of reality series awards makeovers. Though this year’s changes are not extreme, the latest tweak is sort of like a shot of Botox-you know something’s different about the person’s appearance, but you’re not sure just what.

Still, some critics say more reconstruction is in order.

When the 57th Annual Primetime Emmys are given next month, the two major reality series prizes will be outstanding reality-competition and, for the first time, outstanding reality program.

Wait, not so fast, you say?

If you thought “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” won in that category last year, you’d be right and wrong. To confuse matters, last year the category had the exact same name. But it fell under the arcane “area” award distinction, meaning that it was what is known at ATAS as a “no competition” award: Any one of the five nominees could have won, none of them could have won or all five of them could have won.

“This year we took away the no-competition, and it is the first year that we have a straight-ahead horse race competition for reality program and reality competition,” Mr. Leverence said.

When reality series were introduced at the Emmys in 2002, there were two tracks for awards-series and series competitions-though they initially fell under the “nonfiction” umbrella. That year, when “The Osbournes” won in the category called outstanding nonfiction program (reality), the competition included “Trauma: Life in the E.R.”

Competition series “Trading Spaces” and “Survivor” made their first Emmy appearances, but they were stuck in outstanding special class program, along with “The ‘I Love Lucy’ 50th Anniversary Special” and a “West Wing” documentary special. Mr. Leverence kindly called the latter category “an orphanage for programs that don’t have a home, or possibly they had more than one place they could go back then.”

In 2003 the renamed outstanding reality-competition category continued to be a wayward home for lost programs (including “100 Years of Hope and Humor,” the Bob Hope centennial retrospective), while its counterpart was renamed nonfiction program (alternative/unscripted). Last year outstanding reality-competition lost its “area” award or “no competition” distinction, but outstanding reality program did not.

Over the past several years nonfiction awards have been the most volatile of all types of prime-time entertainment categories. “Nothing even comes close,” said Mr. Leverence.

“Emmy rules changes are evidence of the mercurial nature of the reality and reality-competition shows during that four-year period” starting in 2002, Mr. Leverence said. “And now that things have settled down on the programming side as the genres have matured, so do you find a new stability in the Emmy rules governing them.”

No doubt many are pleased with the progress. “I think they did a great job-whatever the result is, it’s good. Even though ‘Survivor’ and ‘Apprentice’ are produced differently, I think I’m in good company,” said Bertram van Munster, executive producer of “The Amazing Race,” which has won two consecutive Emmys in outstanding reality-competition and is nominated again this year. “Look, our business is always changing; you have to change with the times.”

“No complaints,” said Mark Burnett, executive producer of “The Apprentice” and “Survivor”-both of which are nominees in outstanding reality-competition-in an e-mail interview. “At the end of last season there was a huge percentage of shows that were unscripted.”

However, Mr. Burnett added, in terms of Emmy categories, “It does seem strange that unscripted dramatic competition such as ‘Survivor,’ ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Amazing Race’ should be in the same category as ‘American Idol,’ which is a live talent contest. For example, it seems like ‘American Idol’ and ‘Dancing With the Stars’ belong in the same category along with, of course, ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.'”

David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, which produces “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” a nominee in outstanding reality program, as well as “Fear Factor,” “I Want to Be a Hilton” and “Big Brother,” would also like to see more changes to properly reflect the reality explosion.

“Putting ‘American Idol’ and ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ together, which I think both deserve to be recognized, is like putting ‘CSI’ and ‘Desperate Housewives’ in the same category,” Mr. Goldberg said. “We have to accept that there isn’t a neat headline for all of the shows. ‘Penn & Teller: Bullshit!,’ a comedy sketch thing, is quite different from ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.’ It doesn’t fit into a neat package. I’m not saying it doesn’t deserve to be there. It’s evidence that there probably aren’t enough categories to represent the wide breadth of shows. So I think acceptance and recognition are improving, but I don’t think we’re all the way there.”

“We were honored to get a nomination,” Mr. Goldberg said of his 2004 “Home Edition” nod, “but we didn’t even make the main event. We were sandwiched between technology awards.”

Indeed, ATAS continues to categorize outstanding reality programs as Creative Arts Emmys, along with picture editing and choreography, while outstanding reality-competition is part of the prime-time Emmys telecast.

Originally, both were under Creative Arts, but when reality-competition became so popular, the ATAS board decided to include it in the telecast as an audience favorite, Mr. Leverence said. Because there is a cap of 27 awards on the telecast, the award for variety, music or comedy special was moved to Creative Arts.

“It may be that the board will move reality into the telecast and move another category out, but not this year,” Mr. Leverence said.

Said Mr. Goldberg, “What would it take to have our show, which is not only a reality hit but a prime-time hit, well-received by audiences, be recognized on the same night as all the other well-deserving shows?”

In time, Mr. Goldberg envisions a “docu-soap” Emmy category for new series “that are documenting people’s real lives,” such as MTV’s “Laguna Beach.”

“At some point in the future there will be hybrid shows that are a combination of scripted and reality that are still in their infancy. Over time, it’ll get bigger like everything else,” Mr. Goldberg said of ATAS’ recognition of reality shows. “There probably used to be 10 major league baseball teams, and now there are 30.”