One Size Doesn’t Fit All in the Reality TV Race for the Emmys

Barely Famous Reality Show Emmys
Courtesy of VH1

Last year, A&E’s light-hearted comedy “Wahlburgers” faced off against the channel’s gritty series “Intervention” at the Emmy Awards. Both lost to Discovery’s adventure series “Deadliest Catch” in the unstructured reality program category.

That would be akin to putting “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “Homeland” in the same race. While there continues to be plenty of grumbling over what’s eligible for what on the scripted side [should “The Big Bang Theory” and “Transparent” really face off?], a similar debate is brewing in the unscripted world.

The decision in 2014 to split non-competitive reality shows into two categories — structured [such shows as “Shark Tank” that hew to the same format each week] and unstructured [mostly doc-series such as the “Real Housewives” franchise] helped, even if it’s hard to remember which is which.

But such a move still complicates matters by putting very different types of shows in the same mix. One size doesn’t fit all, especially in reality. “The unscripted space is, for better or for worse, all over the place right now,” says Thinkfactory Media president Adam Reed.

Reed, for example, says Thinkfactory’s now-retired series “Gene Simmons Family Jewels” should have been considered “a clear comedy.” And at the Emmys, there’s no obvious place to put those kinds of semi-scripted unscripted shows — particularly comedies such as “Wahlburgers,” USA’s “Chrisley Knows Best,” A&E’s “Duck Dynasty,” AMC’s “Comic Book Men” and OWN’s “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s.”

Are these shows sitcoms, filmed based on a pre-planned narrative outline? Yes. But are they reality shows, featuring talent supplying their own lines and reacting in real time? Also, yes.

“I truly believe there are not enough unscripted categories,” Reed says. “As the genre has evolved, the categories have not.”

Warner Bros. unscripted and alternative television president Mike Darnell says he thinks the TV Academy is “still confused with what to do with it as a category.” He proposes a solution: Split unscripted series into genres, just as with scripted shows.

“While there continues to be plenty of grumbling over what’s eligible for what on the scripted side, a similar debate is brewing in the unscripted world.”
@IndieWire_Mike

“Structured, unstructured, they’re complicating it for no reason,” he says. “They’re overthinking it. They should do a comedic reality category, a dramatic reality category. Reality is such a broad umbrella, but it’s either serious or it’s funny.”

Darnell isn’t a fan of the structured/non-structured divide.

“I don’t even understand why it makes a difference,” he says. “They are different types of shows, but not different genres necessarily.”

The era of peak TV has made it difficult for the TV Academy to keep Emmy categories neat and tidy. Nowhere was that more evident than the rise of such shows as “Orange Is the New Black,” which entered the Emmy race as comedy despite a strong dramatic backbone. The Academy eventually decided to classify hourlong shows including “Orange” as dramas, but created a task force to handle disputes [which is why “Jane the Virgin” was reclassified a comedy].

In reality, perhaps the show blurring the line the most is VH1’s “Barely Famous,” a scripted series starring Erin and Sara Foster, playing themselves in a show that looks and feels so much like a reality docu-series that it’s hard to tell the difference between it and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” [Here’s the difference: The Fosters are in on the joke.]

“Barely Famous” executive producer Jason Carbone, who specializes in such comedic reality shows as “Run’s House,” “Tia & Tamera” and “Meet the Smiths,” says he’d also like to see the TV Academy recognize more unscripted shows.

“I should say there’s probably room for improvement,” he says. “Alternative takes up a pretty good slice of the dial these days. I don’t think the Emmys reflect the proportional balance to what is actually being watched.”

Carbone is optimistic reality’s Emmy footprint will expand over time. Reed, meanwhile, says he’s in no rush to see on-screen reality talent [other than hosts, who already have a category] suddenly become Emmy-eligible.

“Are you giving these people awards because they’re playing a certain portrayal of themselves, which may or may not be themselves?” he asks. “I think that’s really where it differs from scripted. I don’t know that giving individual characters in a show their own categories necessarily helps anybody’s cause. You get into some weird territory then.”

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