Emmys’ ‘Purity of Non-Fiction’

John leverence, senior VP of awards at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, sees a wide-open field for many of this year's Primetime Emmys races. The awards show, which will be broadcast live Aug. 29 on NBC on both the East and West coasts, also will have a few new guidelines. Leverence talks to B&C Programming Editor Marisa Guthrie about how the new rules could affect the competition in all genres of TV. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

This year's rule changes include one regarding how you categorize reality and non-fiction. What is happening with this?

It says that if you have any reality in the mix, bang, it kicks it over into reality. So, there is kind of a "purity of non-fiction" doctrine going on here. There is a feeling on the board of governors that there should be a clear demarcation between non-fiction/documentary Emmy recognition, and reality and reality competition-type recognition. And if in fact you have one drop of reality blood, it's going over to reality.

This all refers back to a show called Expedition Africa. It was a Mark Burnett production where they recreated Stanley's search for Livingstone in Africa. You had regular non-fiction elements: the map of Africa and the little dots [showing] where they were. But then you also had "reality show" elements. They had put together a team of people, and they would do little interviews in which one was complaining about the others, the typical kind of bitching and moaning that you have in reality programming.

The board of governors came back this year and said, we really think we need to make that demarcation a little bit stronger, and therefore if you have any reality in it-I won't use the word "taint" it-but it will definitely categorize it as reality because if we're going to have something in non-fiction, then it's going to be non-fiction, period. It's becoming a little more doctrinally pure in terms of what we consider to be non-fiction.

The Amazing Racehas won the reality/competition Emmy seven years in a row. Isn't this beyond anti-climactic?

Well, over in variety, music or comedy series, you've got The Daily Show, which has won an equivalent amount. I looked up the number of people who serve on the Blue Ribbon panel for those; one is 150-some [people]; the other is 200-some. You've got an awful lot of people, and those people tend to change from year to year. And [these shows] just keep winning.

The lesson is not how do these people keep winning as much as why can't these other shows get their game up to beat them? These shows are being judged by industry professionals who are keenly aware of the rigors of production. When you see something that is just that intensely produced, it's just an extraordinary accomplishment.

Do you think any of the new comedies has a chance at an Emmy?

A couple of years ago, somebody said that we have entered a new golden age in drama. I think we may be moving into an equivalent one in comedy series. Glee is certainly a cultural phenomenon; it's beyond being a TV show. Modern Family is certainly a bright new show. In terms of a different kind of comedy that braids comedic and dramatic elements, Nurse Jackie in its own way is extraordinary. Parks and Recreation is sort of a throwback to an old-fashioned comedy and is certainly very strong. United States of Tara is doing amazing things. Because I have vulgar tastes, I really enjoy Community, which I think is hysterical. I love Chevy Chase; he plays that moronic character so well. Big Bang Theory and Two And a Half Men from Chuck Lorre-very strong old-fashioned sitcoms. Definitely 30 Rock is brilliant as always, but I just named seven or eight shows that seem to be very significant contenders.

How many freshman comedies do you expect to get nominated?

There's a good possibility that you might see 40%-60% of the nominations coming in with brand-new shows.

What about the new dramas' chances?

The Good Wife is very strong. Treme and Men of a Certain Age are very strong. Justified from FX is a show that I think people are going to sit up and look at. Southland is very strong. Sons of Anarchy has become very strong. Then you have totally weird stuff: the blue-screen monster of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which at least in terms of figuring out a way to shoot on a nickel-and-dime budget and put together something that actually looks like it has a big production going on, it's kind of a miracle of blue-screen technology. Breaking Bad continues to be very strong; it's gotten darker and darker. So, it's a very, very strong field.

The show's live on the West Coast this year.

That's kind of a prestige bumper. It was always the way the Oscars did it. Now the Golden Globes are doing it. So, it's nice that we're going to be able to do it, too. We're on early this year because we're on NBC and we can't be on [in September] because they have Sunday Night Football. And it will be interesting to see how that "live at five" thing goes.

How do you think Jimmy Fallon will do as host?

He's certainly shown that he is a master of the pre-produced clip roll. He's extremely good at putting together comedic interludes. We started up last year with the generic roll-out-here's your longform, here's your series-which I think made it a little bit more coherent as opposed to, OK, now we're going to do all the writers. [Instead of] structuring it along individual achievements that cross genres, by structuring it along genres it really makes [the Emmy-cast] much more coherent and helps get viewers engaged.

How do you think the rule, first introduced last year, of going to six nominees in the main categories will play out this fall?

This year, it's extended to guest performers. So, you've got six nominees in lead and supporting actor and guest actor as well as the series themselves. With that expanded field, you have an opportunity to more fully embrace [each category]. I think you could easily go to 10 like the [Oscars] did, in both drama and comedy series, and you wouldn't have a dud in the bunch. The fields are so strong. I can only say that the first call I'm going to get when we announce our nominees is, why wasn't X nominated? And then I would have to say, you tell me which one of the six I should have dumped.

Would you consider going to more than six nominees?

The board of governors is very pleased right now with six. You never say never, but at this stage of the game, that seems to be it. But there's no doubt that the pressure is on an upward expansion because of the quality and quantity, as opposed to a downward curve. Television is just so good. The features have really become kind of a boutique industry in terms of the quality. And that's great. Even though I know it's killing the motion picture industry to have the take that so many of its nominees get less than $100 million at the box office, that tends to be the way things are in that business.

I frankly attribute all of this to a Marshall McLuhan-type theory: HD really is a new medium. I remember the first time I saw HD, I was in some appliance store. They didn't have the volume on but I couldn't care less; all I wanted to do was look at it. It just looked so good. You've got a medium change and, as McLuhan said, every time you have a medium change it ups the perceived quality of the medium. It was when television came in that movies became film. The Earth was just a planet until we got that shot from the moon. The new context of HD, and the extraordinary investment and ambition of cable television with Starz and FX and Showtime and AMC, there's a tremendous amount of talent. Hollywood in 2010 is like Paris in 1922.

The board of governors has amended a rule stating that an episode more than the double the show's traditional length is ineligible for Emmy consideration. Can we call that theLost rule?

You probably would call it The Wire rule because that's where we first had it come in. A couple of years ago when The Wire was in its sixth season, it had an extended-length finale. In the nomination process at that time, it needed a special dispensation to show the whole thing, which was in fact granted. But for reasons that just drive me crazy, The Wire never had any traction with the Academy's voters. In terms of a series that would have some greater name recognition, we should call it the Lost rule.

Blue Ribbon panelists are now limited to two-year terms, just like that other august body, the House of Representatives. Were some of these panelists using their Blue Ribbon status to build a killer DVD library? What was the deal there?

I don't think that it was actually addressing a situation that was problematic; rather, it was trying to structure into the process a freshening mechanism. Sometimes when you want people to slow down in your parking lot, you put in speed bumps. The intent was kind of the same-a refreshening mechanism that would give us a mixture and a change in an automated sort of way.

A lot of people are fans of particular kinds of television. A lot of people just really like comedy series. Other people really like police procedurals, and others like reality shows. Because there is a tendency to want to serve on a panel for something that you're particularly interested in, and if that interest remains constant over the years, you would naturally tend to sign up for comedy series year after year, not because of some mischievous intent to back your favorite show.

What precipitated the "hanging episodes" rule change?

That, of course, was the famous last two episodes of The Sopranos a couple of years ago. Because our eligibility period ends on May 31, [we were] in a real quandary with David Chase and HBO because the last two episodes fell over in to the next eligibility year, and per the rules that we had on the books, those two episodes would have gone down the eligibility drain. Because there wasn't a series continuing the next year that they could have attached to, they were kind of out there all by themselves. So, the board of governors felt that it would be unconscionable to ignore what proved to be, at least with the final episode [of The Sopranos], one of the most notorious episodes in the history of dramatic television as Chase took a pointed stick and stuck it into the eye of America.

You are now pitting some scripted and non-scripted shows against each other for the first time with the creation of a new category for hair and makeup. Do you expect a flurry of hair and makeup submissions fromCelebrity Apprentice?

These are designed to accommodate dramatic re-creations within [single camera] programs. That's really where the problem came up. You would have a show where they would re-create some scene from 18th-century French history and there would be a lot of hair and makeup going on. So, that will be a larger corral to hold the various kinds of animals we've got running around.

A show like So You Think You Can Dance or Project Runway, those go into Category 42, which is going to be multi-camera. This [new] Category 41 is single-camera. So, once we found out that we had some single-camera stuff coming through in these non-fiction re-creations, we needed to open up that category. Donald Trump is already covered in 42. Trump only appears in multi-camera shows because he needs the three-dimensionality of cameras surrounding that cloth. One camera is not enough.

E-mail comments to mguthrie@ nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie