There’s far more reality programming on cable than on the broadcast nets — but you’d never know it by looking at recent primetime Emmy noms.
In the three years since the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences started handing out statuettes for competitive reality shows — the glamour category of the unscripted world — just one cable skein (Bravo’s “Project Runway”) has managed to snag a nomination.
There’s been more love for noncompetition shows like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” or “The Osbournes,” both of which have won Emmys. But even in this category, the big boys are starting to push out their cable siblings: ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” took home the prize last year, for instance.
Bravo topper Lauren Zalaznick, though happy about “Runway’s” breakthrough last year, says cablers have to fight harder to get their reality shows noticed by Emmy voters.
“Reality needs to be really breakout on cable to register with Academy voters because cable has traditionally been about nonscripted and reality programming,” she says, noting that big-budget scripted skeins such as “The Closer” or “The Sopranos” are still the exception on cable.
Because unscripted fare is so prevalent on cable, “It’s harder to make the case that one hour is worthy,” Zalaznick adds.
Indeed, to some extent, cablers have only themselves to blame for their poor Emmy showings. That’s because the wired world is filled with all manner of copycat reality skeins, even more so than on the broadcast webs.
Following the success of “The Obsbournes” and “The Simple Life,” for example, just about every channel seemed to launch its own take on celeb reality. Now, anyone who’s tasted fame — Danny Bonaduce, Jewel, Tanya Tucker, Gene Simmons — seems destined to get a cable reality show.
All the clones tend to obscure the fact that cable is actually producing some quality reality programming. In the same way HBO and FX turn out topnotch fare by creating shows that don’t have to appeal to everybody, cablers are finding that reality shows that target niche auds can result in compelling TV.
USA’s “Nashville Star,” for example, has a rabid aud that appreciates the fact its wannabe singers don’t have to homogenize themselves into bubblegum pop singers. And SoapNet’s “I Want to Be a Soap Star” succeeds because it’s perfectly targeted toward the channel’s viewership.
“It works brilliantly on SoapNet because it plays to their core audience,” says “Soap Star” exec producer Eric Schotz. “Cable can take more chances because they can create signature programs. What’s a signature reality show for CBS? You could say ‘Survivor,’ but ‘Survivor’ would still work if it were on Fox.”
Bravo’s “Runway” is broader than “Soap Star” or even “Nashville Star,” but it still strives for a niche authenticity that many broadcast shows don’t even attempt. Bravo even makes sure production on the show starts on a certain date just to make sure the skein’s finale can air in conjunction with N.Y. Fashion Week.
“It looks and feels and smells rich in content, rich in import, rich in stakes, rich in drama,” Zalaznick says. “And that’s what drives all good TV shows, whatever the genre.”