There’s no question that informational programming is on the rise. With more than 150,000 hours of programming annually, the once nearly defunct genre has made a dramatic comeback — thus making the Emmy for informational series topical and controversial. Last year’s nominees included everything from the TBS series “The Private Life of Plants” to Michael Moore’s “TV Nation,” and one of the difficulties with the category is the incredible diversity of programs that end up in competition.
“To group all of these things together is very difficult,” says Pat Mitchell, president, Time Inc.-Turner Original Prods.
“How can you judge between ancient Egypt and man-eating Venus flytraps?” asks John Ford, general manager of The Learning Channel. “If you look at the entries, there is a wide degree of latitude regarding what the category is.”
While Mitchell is half joking, her question nevertheless raises the issue of the rather hazy distinction between primetime informational series and the news and documentary category. Producers of non-fictional programming need to determine which Emmy category is more appropriate, and for some the distinction is less than clear. Ford, for example, notes that The Learning Channel tends to stick to the news and documentary Emmys. In general, though, the informational series category designates programming on the more entertainment side of the genre, while the news and documentary category connotes the more traditional documentary format.
Another frequent complaint about the category is the fact that series with totally incongruent numbers of programs compete. “How can you judge a series with 250 shows against a series that only has four or six shows?” asks Mitchell. Michael Cascio, VP of documentary programming at A&E, which submits its Biography series which airs nightly, agrees. “It’s very odd for us to compete with something that had just a few episodes,” he says.
Yet another area of concern is the sense that cable series do not garner the same amount of attention as series for broadcast. “The Emmys focus on the networks,” says Tim Smith, executive VP production, Unapix Entertainment, which recently has begun producing informational programming. “However, a lot of what’s happening is really in cable. So while they’re still focused on the old world of the network documentary, there’s a whole new genre — it’s news that you can use — and it may not be all that new, but it hasn’t really been recognized.”
Smith’s comment is emblematic of the sense that there is a new genre of informational programming that is both responsible for the growing interest among audiences in non-fiction and may need a more defined Emmy category. “We have this old-school vision of documentaries — they were soundbites plus archival film or photographs,” says Mitchell. “You rarely see that now. Documentaries, when they are done well, are dramatic stories.” Cascio says that the Biography series is an example of this new programming. “We are very proud of Biography and the fact that it’s both popular and substantive,” he says. “We’re not ‘Entertainment Tonight’ or ‘Hard Copy’ but we’re not so inaccessible that we can’t reach a large audience.”
One final complaint lodged against the informational series is the seemingly impossible judging process. “No one can see all the shows,” explains Cascio. “You just have to hope that the voters are familiar enough to vote knowledgeably.”
Ford comments that to compete, the cable series have to make a concerted publicity effort, sending tapes to judges and helping inform viewers who may not have seen the shows when they were aired. “The programs that have the highest ratings and publicity will come out ahead,” he says. “As a voter I am much more likely to have seen something on ’20/20′ than I will have seen something on TNT. The cable series really doesn’t have a chance without sending out tapes because a percentage of the voting membership won’t have even seen the show.” He adds, “The system isn’t perfect, but you’ll never have a perfect system. In a perfect world, though, everyone who votes will have seen everything submitted before they cast a vote.”
Despite varied complaints, most agree that the task of judging so many diverse programs is inherently difficult. “We could have 500 categories,” laughs Cascio. “All in all, though, the nominees end up being a pretty good representation of the programming and even though the system is imperfect, it manages to show some of the diversity of informational programming.”