Reality’s evolution tests Academy’s flexibility

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When the TV Academy announced that its nonfiction peer group was dividing into separate reality and documentary segments in late May, the administrative change pointed to the endurance of what was considered merely a passing fad a decade ago.

“It grew out of the industry’s acceptance of nonscripted reality and reality competition programming,” says Academy senior awards veep John Leverence. “It is simply a part of what the industry is doing.”

However, since the reality series Emmy category first appeared in 2001, quickly followed by reality-competition in 2003, the industry’s most prestigious TV honors have grappled with how best to reward excellence in the genre. Complicating matters is the fact that, by borrowing heavily from other types of programming and possibly creating offshoot genres, reality continues to evolve faster than the Emmy categories designed to recognize it.

“It’s about taking a hyperfocused look at reality and saying even within reality there are genres,” says Food Network senior veep and “Food Network Star” judge Susie Fogelson. “It’s probably words that maybe have never been used within the Emmys.”

Although Leverence says the TV Academy has always had a mechanism in place to revise the Emmy categories to reflect changes in the landscape — in fact, the Emmys have added 20% more awards in the past 10 years, largely to accommodate reality — the genre doesn’t account for more submissions than comedy and drama combined.

Despite the increase in the number of quality shows on the air, Fogelson admits that reality still gets a bad rap, which makes it hard to associate the genre with an awards show that gives trophies to cultural juggernauts like “The Sopranos” or “Seinfeld.”

“When some people think of what the Emmys recognize, some reality shows might not fall under quality,” she says. “But I think that reality’s come a long way.”

“American Idol” exec producer Nigel Lythgoe is a bit more blunt.

“I don’t understand the term ‘reality,'” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re a variety-entertainment show. How on earth can you compare a two-hour live TV show to ‘Amazing Race,’ which is post-produced, sweetened and reshot?”

While Fogelson and Lythgoe have shows that easily fit into the current rules for the reality-competition category, several others like Chelsea Handler’s “After Lately,” which reenacts behind-the-scenes events from her talk show, and “Duck Dynasty,” a reality series that’s more sitcom than unscripted, are mashing up genres in a way that makes them difficult to categorize.

Deirdre Gurney, who exec produces A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” with her husband, Scott, says they often break established rules about reality with the show, enabling them to push the genre forward.

“You don’t add sound effects in reality shows, you don’t play with time, you don’t have flashbacks, you don’t usually do these things, but I think you’re going to see more of that coming because a little bit has worked,” Gurney says.

Plus, scripted shows have incorporated elements of reality, with such series as “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Modern Family” imitating documentaries, which blurs the lines even further.

As reality TV continues to get increasingly specific in its examinations of subcultures, occupations and competitions, a few potentials for new genres are emerging. Comparing jail shows in their own category is probably never going to happen at the Emmys — though it seems like there are enough these days — but Leverence says the potential for additional changes exists for unscripted and reality. Here’s a quick look at how this broader segment of television is breaking down:

•Docusoap: Big characters and big voices characterize these shows that skillfully blend elements of the classic sitcom with real-life people. Includes “After Lately,” “Duck Dynasty,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” “Real Housewives.”

•Talent Competition: They sing, they dance, they’re drag queens. This big category of shows seems to be the most popular genre on TV. Includes “The Singing Bee,” “The Sing-Off,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “American Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “The X Factor,” “America’s Got Talent,” “Dancing With the Stars,” “Project Runway,” “The Voice,” “Work of Art,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “The Glee Project.”

•Culinary Competition: Chefs and home cooks sweat over ingredients as they battle to be named the winner. Includes “Iron Chef America,” “Top Chef,” “MasterChef,” “Chopped,” “Next Food Network Star,” “Next Iron Chef.”

•Doccupational: Shows that feature colorful characters, at work in their chosen profession. Includes “Deadliest Catch,” “Oddities,” “Ice Road Truckers,” “American Pickers,” “Rachel Zoe Project,” “Storage Wars.”

However complicated the reality landscape seems right now, the phenomenon of scripted borrowing from reality and vice versa makes for quality entertainment across the board, says “The Biggest Loser” creator Dave Broome, who just sold a scripted pilot to HBO called “Fat Sells.”

“When you watch the old multicam sitcoms, nobody in real life speaks like that, so there was a disconnect when people started to see more reality shows,” Broome says. “They can relate to those people. Reality gave us the opportunity to tell good stories with good characters. It has helped scripted TV get better, I honestly feel that way.”

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