‘Masters’ challenged for domain

Upstarts look to unseat artsy PBS series to win Emmy's hodgepodge nonfiction category

Perennial Emmy winner “American Masters” is going to come into some unconventional competition this year in the nonfiction series category, a hodgepodge that ranges from talkshows to real-life versions of “Law & Order.”

“Masters,” a PBS series featuring in-depth profiles of celebrated artists, has taken the crown five of the past seven years. Last fall’s Martin Scorsese-helmed edition, “No Direction Home — Bob Dylan,” already nabbed a Peabody Award during last month’s ceremony. (Series creator Susan Lacy took great pains and more than a decade to persuade the Dylan camp to collaborate on the film.)

But wresting away the top prize can be done, and executives overseeing several of the category’s mainstays are submitting episodes that highlight the differences between entrants.

Last year, PBS’s sweeping multipart doc “Broadway: The American Musical” took the nod, besting competition from placeholders “Biography” and “Inside the Actors Studio” as well as newer nominees “Cold Case Files” and IFC showbiz talker “Dinner for Five.”

Network brass say the murkiness of the category — which has at times been called “nonfiction series (traditional)” and “nonfiction series informational” — makes it tough to gauge what will appeal to Emmy voters.

Deirdre O’Hearn, A&E’s VP of nonfiction and alternative programming, says her channel is submitting a two-hour “Biography” episode featuring Marlon Brando this year, which if nominated, will likely face off against a range of formats — the net’s own “Cold Case Files” and “Intervention” potentially among them.

Brando makes sense, even while most regular contenders including “Biography” have tended to profile more contemporary personalities to keep up in the ratings race. O’Hearn, who oversees the 19-year-old “Biography” franchise, says synching up audience tastes with Academy members is no easy feat, but she feels this year’s choice of Brando stands a good shot.

“We’ve been skaking up the format a lot, and we encourage our producers not to be formulaic. But ‘Biography’ is a landmark series and, really, it is the one that everyone has copied,” O’Hearn says. “It’s why we get acknowledged every year. It’s at the top of the genre.”

Bravo senior VP of programming Frances Berwick says much debate went into choosing the submission for “Actors Studio” — internally referred to as the “Susan Lucci of nonfiction series,” having been nominated for the past several years without a win. The network went with an episode featuring comedian Dave Chappelle.

“It’s a little out of left field, but we just felt it was an incredible interview and (host James Lipton) was able to get so much that frankly the other (Chappelle) interviews didn’t,” Berwick says. “It’s perfectly representative of the depth of the show. Jim is able to elicit new information, not trite latenight talk show spiel. His guests are talking from the heart and about their craft.

“We’re veterans when it comes to not winning. I don’t know if that will ever change,” Berwick adds.

Though E! has taken great pains to bolster its top-performing “True Hollywood Story,” adding more contemporary faces and topics to the mix, execs will attempt to appeal to a hipper slice of the Academy. “THS” has been nominated a handful of times, but has yet to win.

Betsy Rott, VP of programming for E!, is going with the franchise’s hour devoted to the early-’90s sitcom “Home Improvement” in hopes of tapping into the pop-culture nostalgia of younger Acad members. “It reflects what ‘THS’ is all about: good, fun, dramatic stories about Hollywood. ‘Home Improvement’ was a popular show that, ironically, didn’t get a lot of love from Emmy,” Rott notes.

This past season, E! also spun off “True Hollywood Story Investigates,” which focuses on topical specials such as showbiz divorces. Rott is entering an episode devoted to plastic surgery, with its tie-ins to FX drama “Nip/Tuck” and E!’s own reality series “Dr. 90210.”

Whatever the case, Berwick says all that the non-“American Masters” candidates can do is hope for the best.

“There are a lot of apples and oranges in the category. ‘Masters’ costs over $1 million an hour and is crafted by an auteur filmmaker over the course of years sometimes,” she says. “That’s completely different from what we do, or what the other networks do. It’s frustrating, but all we can do is wait to see what happens.”

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