ATAS asks itself if unscripted skeins deserve kudos spotlight

One of the major issues facing the Emmy Awards involves whether to give reality TV an unqualified seat at the big kids’ table, reflecting its prominence and importance — particularly to the major networks.

If it seems like that horse has already left the barn, it actually hasn’t, mostly due to resistance within the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, where doubts linger about whether unscripted fare truly represents TV’s best and brightest.

Just because the “stars” of “Jersey Shore” are popular and might even attract younger viewers to the Emmycast doesn’t mean everyone in the TV biz wants to invite them to the equivalent of their annual prom. In addition, a taint still hovers over reality TV, one that isn’t helped by interludes like Bravo’s handling of a suicide in relation to “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” which kicked off its second season with nary a delay despite the tragic intrusion of true reality.

In terms of ratings — where programs like “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” are top of the heap — elevating unscripted fare is a no-brainer. Moreover, with the major networks that carry the telecast having largely abandoned TV movies (despite what “Entourage” might think), there’s considerable support from the broadcast hosts to push reality front and center and relegate longform to the sidelines.

Such a move, however, runs counter to the impulses of many within the academy. Knowing a little something about their demographics, it’s a safe bet they harbor more rooting interest in the Emmy showdown involving classy period miniseries “Downton Abbey” and “Mildred Pierce” than the reality face-off pitting “Hoarders” against “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List.”

Finding the proper balance will ultimately fall to the academy’s next elected chairman and board, with the group’s current stewards having largely punted the matter down the road for as long as they could. Then again, change seldom occurs smoothly in regard to the Emmys, where a 2009 effort to streamline the live presentation by time-shifting awards yielded such fierce resistance from the talent guilds that CBS and the show’s producers finally scrapped the plan.

Tinkering with the awards followed a widely panned performance by five reality hosts emceeing the 2008 telecast, which felt to some Emmy veterans like pandering to a lower (if not lowest) common denominator. As Variety noted after that misguided gambit, “Attempts to freshen up the Emmy telecast have fallen flat — or worse.”

Granted, tarring all of reality TV for the failings of specific programs isn’t entirely fair. The Emmys, after all, are about recognizing excellence — a night to celebrate each genre’s finest representatives, not its worst.

Even so, the excesses frequently associated with reality create a pall that can linger over the form. When producers and networks treat scandal and even the occasional death in a “show must go on” manner — as if such peripheral damage is an occasional cost of doing business — it’s no wonder unscripted programs can’t completely shed their image problems.

For its part, Bravo appears to have calculated that Russell Armstrong’s death in mid-August — committing suicide after his wife, Taylor, filed for divorce — will blow over now that the premiere is behind them. Media attention spans being what they are, that conclusion is all the more irritating because it happens to be true, with even critics raining fire and brimstone on the channel today likely to get distracted by fresh controversies soon enough.

The academy and networks have already taken steps to acknowledge reality’s significance, including the choice of “Survivor” patriarch Mark Burnett to produce this year’s Emmys, albeit paired with “Glee’s” Jane Lynch, a star from one of Fox’s scripted hits. And with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox having agreed to broadcast the show through 2018, the pressure to implement change will test the resolve of those within the academy to maintain what they see as basic standards.

Part of that has to do with an organization steeped in and committed to its traditions, which shouldn’t be shed lightly but probably do require a facelift to more accurately reflect TV’s present. The rest boils down to a fairly typical problem in Hollywood: Until it slaps them in the face, most people resist embracing too much reality. n Brian Lowry
brian.lowry@variety.com
variety.com/lowry
@blowryontv

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