New dog, old tricks

Competish race settles into familiar Emmy vibe

It’s an oft-heard Emmy complaint: Year in and year out, it seems like the same shows get nominated for the top awards, leaving little room for newcomers to break through.

But this season it’s not the comedy and drama categories that seem stale. Instead, it’s the race for competitive reality show that appears to have grown long in the tooth.

Three shows — “Survivor,” “Am-erican Idol” and “The Amazing Race” — have dominated the category since it launched two years ago, with the critically worshipped “Amazing Race” winning both times. It’s too soon to say what voters will do this year — noms aren’t announced until next month — but industry insiders expect the vet troika to face off again.

One of the reasons for the repeat competition is that the shows air on broadcast networks, thus generating huge audiences and lots of buzz. What’s more, because they were among the first shows to emerge in the modern era of reality TV, they have strong brand recognition. By contrast, smaller skeins such as Bravo’s “Project Runway” and UPN’s “The Road to Stardom With Missy Elliott” are seen by a fraction of the audience. Even USA Network’s popular “Nashville Star,” which has had major success launching country music performers, seems tiny opposite juggernaut “American Idol.”

“It’s a lot tougher for non-network shows or shows on UPN or the WB to stand out,” says Jon Kroll, programming topper at New Line TV (“Amish in the City”).

The audience gap between broadcast and cable doesn’t mean much when it comes to scripted shows on cablers such as HBO, TNT or FX. Both nets regularly pour serious coin into marketing their skeins and pics to regular auds and Academy voters: Emmy wins play into the high-quality brand these nets cultivate.

There’s probably not much upside for UPN, however, if a show like “Missy” or even the much more successful “America’s Next Top Model” snags an Emmy. Indeed, a UPN spokeswoman says the exec producers of “Top Model” — perhaps in a sign of how little they care about Emmy love — “were going to pass” on the chance to be interviewed for this story.

John Leverence, senior VP of awards for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, agrees that the evidence does suggest that big-time players have had a lock on the noms for the past two years. And because those skeins rep “a strong field,” it’s fair to consider them contenders again.

Still, “your guess is as good as mine as to whether last year’s noms will be nominated once again this year,” he says, noting that several skeins not recently in contention might break through.

“Poker seems to be the new national sedentary sport — possibly good news for ‘Celebrity Poker Showdown,’ ” Leverence says.

He goes on to call “The Contender,” from Mark Burnett and Jeffrey Katzenberg, “a kind of ‘Extreme Makeover for Guys Needing the Big Break.’ (It) has an undeniable wallop of human drama that Emmy voters have traditionally been drawn to.”

Those are just two possible players that could shakes thing up. Since he doesn’t take sides in these matters, Leverence is quick to note that “there are arguments that can be made for and, of course, against the others.”

What’s more, the other major reality category — which includes shows that aren’t purely competition-based — is more likely to provide surprises this year. That race draws from “a much more volatile mix of programming, and there seems to be a pattern of nonrepetition,” Leverence says. Indeed, among eligible contenders this year, only Bravo’s “Project Greenlight” has been nominated more than once in the category. (Last year’s winner, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” is back in the hunt, as are “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!”)

Still, some observers wonder if it isn’t time for the Academy to consider making some tweaks to the reality categories in order to reflect the shifts in the rapidly changing genre.

Kroll, for example, notes the noncompetitive reality genre is splitting off into shows that are either comedy-based (think “Growing up Gotti” or “Joe Schmo 2”) or more dramatic (“American Casino,” “Wife Swap”).

“It’s difficult for a show like ‘Simple Life’ to compete with an ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,’ ” he says. “I think ultimately you might see more categories as the genre splits into subsets.”

Leverence says Academy rules already call for the awards committee to begin considering changes any time a new type of programming pattern emerges. The board of governors has the final say on what to do next.

“It may well be that the awards committee will make a report to the board (next year) that this is happening.”

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