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Emmys: Newer Series Find It Hard to Break Into Reality Categories

Feel like you were caught in a time loop after reading the names of this year’s unscripted Emmy nominees? If so, you’re not alone.

They are all worthy and high-quality shows, nevertheless they’ve been the same six series battling it out in the reality competition program category since 2012: “The Amazing Race,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “Project Runway,” “Top Chef,” “So You Think You Can Dance” and “The Voice.” The only change that category has seen in recent years was when then-newcomer “The Voice” usurped the spot previously held by “American Idol.”

“It’s predictable, boring — and it’s frustrating,” says Dwight D. Smith, exec producer of Syfy’s “Face Off,” a Critics Choice award winner that has yet to land a series nomination from the TV Academy.

“If you look at the nominees in the category, it’s hard for new shows to break in because all of these shows have continued to be successful year after year and won their (genre), whether it’s dance, food or fashion,” adds Eli Lehrer, senior VP of nonfiction programming at Lifetime. “That makes it hard for newcomers to break in.”

Lehrer considers Lifetime’s “Project Runway” a genre-defining show, and says the same is true of its perennial fellow nominees. That makes them hard to beat.

“It’s an extremely competitive field, and I think the most crowded in terms of potential nominations — there’s a lot of competition for those six slots,” Smith says. “The frustrating thing is that it seems to be the exact same shows being nominated every year. I don’t want to speak disparagingly of any of the shows that get nominated because they’re all terrific shows worthy of nomination. They’re great shows that I respect and admire a lot.”

It’s also tough to break into the non-competition reality categories. This year, just two shows — “Property Brothers” and “Naked and Afraid” — managed to nab first-time series nominations, a feat made slightly easier after the Academy subdivided the non-competition reality program race into structured and unstructured categories last year, adding room for six more nominees.

Lehrer acknowledges efforts the Academy has made in addressing the unscripted categories. “It seems like structured and unstructured are certainly steps in the right direction, and a vast improvement over the prior organization,” he says. “But I wonder if there are even more specific ways to parse the unscripted landscape that might be more effective. They might even increase the number of nominees in a given category — as they’ve done with scripted.”

Smith agrees, noting how adding one more slot per category could shake things up enough to get some new blood into the reality categories. “It would guarantee at least one new show would be nominated (per category).” He also thinks the TV Academy should consider subdividing the competition side.

“I’ve been discussing it with my producing partner, Mike Agbabian, and we think that at the very least there should be two categories in competition — one that is field-based and one that is studio-based,” Smith says. “We also produce ‘Hollywood Game Night,’ which is also in the competition category, and it seems very odd that ‘Hollywood Game Night’ would be in the same category as ‘Survivor.’ The shows couldn’t be more polar opposites.”

Lehrer and Smith both expect additional growing pains across the reality categories, and hope they’ll continue to be adapted and adjusted to better mirror the ever-changing TV landscape, just as with their scripted counterparts.

“I’ve spoken to some people involved on the Academy side with coming up with classifications for non-scripted, and they were very thoughtful and rigorous about it, so I have to trust that the choices they made have a strong rationale behind them,” Lehrer says. “There’s probably room to improve, but I’m sure the changes will be incremental.”

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