With most of TV dominated by unscripted series, Emmy has a deluge of shows to consider in both the reality and reality-competition series categories.
Many of the broadcast networks’ biggest shows are unscripted, from Fox’s American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance to ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, NBC’s The Voice and CBS’ Survivor and perennial Emmy winner, The Amazing Race.
On cable, this is true in spades. On many nets—including History, Bravo, TLC, Discovery, A&E—schedules are built almost entirely on unscripted programs. History has worked its way to the top of the cable ratings on the backs of shows such as Swamp People, Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men.
Besides the sheer volume, it’s tough to select shows in the reality category because of the genre’s breadth. A look at last year’s nominees—PBS’ Antiques Road Show, Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, A&E’s Hoarders, Bravo’s Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List, Discovery’s MythBusters and CBS’ Undercover Boss—confirms that range.
While viewers have managed to sort their way through program guides to find these shows, in many cases, Emmy voters have not. “There are certain biases that come with the reality category that aren’t fair,” says Rob Sharenow, executive VP of programming for Lifetime, which airs one of last year’s reality-competition nominees, Project Runway. “A lot of traditional TV viewers and Emmy voters tend to vote for shows without having a full appreciation for the other nominees in the category.”
CBS’ The Amazing Race has won the realitycompetition category every year since it began in 2003, except in 2010, when Bravo’s Top Chef prevailed. In 2011, it was back to business as usual, with Amazing Race claiming the trophy.
While no one disputes Race’s production quality, some producers of other top-rated realitycompetition series feel their efforts are going unnoticed. “None of the live performance shows have ever won,” says Conrad Green, executive producer of Dancing With the Stars, which has been nominated several times as outstanding reality-competition program. “Emmy voters are more focused on the bigger spectacles of shows like The Amazing Race. They understand the work behind that more than they understand the work behind a live performance show.”
That work is substantial. For DWTS, it includes managing multiple cameras covering a 360-degree stage and “some of the most ambitious staging that’s ever been seen in a weekly show in America,” says Green. “There’s wardrobe, props, special effects—all of that is done for 15 to 20 dancers per week.”
DWTS may not have won yet, but at least the show has been nominated, which is more than most reality competition shows can say. This year, several contenders are looking to shake up the category, with series including NBC’s The Voice, The Biggest Loser and Betty White’s Off Their Rockers; Fox’s The X Factor and MasterChef; and Oxygen’s The GleeProject all submitting entries.
For Robin Ashbrook, executive producer of British import MasterChef, the strength of his show lies in the way he and his team treat the subject matter.
“We treat the cooking and the food side of the show with as much love as Idol might treat the singing and the performances,” Ashbrook says. “MasterChef is the best-directed and best postproduced reality show on U.S. television. I’m as proud of the work we do in lighting, directing and post-production as I am of the work we do on the casting and the judges.”
Oxygen will submit The Glee Project for its first season, which aired last summer. Executive producer Michael Davies says the show stood out from its competition because “we built something that was incredibly authentic to the process that the kids on Glee actually go through. It’s not a game show, not a talent competition, but a competition that’s completely and authentically built around what it takes to be on Glee.”
For Davies, American unscripted TV shows are among the best-produced shows on the air right now, regardless of which show wins the Emmy.
“I would put the highest-quality alternative series on American television right up there with scripted dramas and comedies in terms of thoughtfulness, creativity and sheer execution,” Davies says. “The very best of these shows, they are operating at a different level.”
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