In the early days of the outstanding reality-competition show category at the Emmys, it was a yearly ritual: Watching the team behind CBS’s “The Amazing Race” collect their prize. It was a fitting annual tribute to a show whose globetrotting production necessarily presented challenges beyond what happened on the sets of “American Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars.” And then, in 2010, the streak was broken, with Bravo’s “Top Chef” taking the prize. “This is something that we never expected,” producer Dan Cutforth said at the ceremony, “and I think a lot of people come up here and say this, I really mean it. I really have nothing at all prepared to say.”
But the field’s seeming new openness was fleeting; “The Amazing Race” won the prize the next two years. Then NBC’s elegantly made smash “The Voice” took the prize, then “Race” once more… and then “The Voice” for the past three years. Over 15 years of the prize, only three shows have ever won, a result that’s surprising, given how much reality seems to be a genre driven by trends.
The problem, if indeed it is a problem, is that competition-based reality TV is a category with relatively little turnover. There have been precious few real breakouts in the field in the years since “The Voice” debuted: VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” springs to mind, given how recently it seemed to spring into the mass consciousness, but it is wrapping up its tenth regular season (and has aired three all-stars seasons to boot). And its subversive parodying of competition-show tropes came at what seems now like the endpoint of a genre; once the high-decadent “Drag Race” is making a divine joke of convention, is there much left to do? What’s good in competition-reality is, almost entirely, what was good when the category was founded in 2003 and in the years immediately after: “Race,” “Top Chef,” “Survivor” (which has had seasons, albeit not the most recent one, that deserved the prize), “Project Runway.” It takes nothing away from the worthiness of the category’s two vastly-honored winners to suggest that when ABC’s “American Idol” revival seems like it’d be a fresh and innovative pick for Emmy consideration, the category may well be moribund, one in which the joys of discovery or of competition may have fallen away.
A comparison could be drawn to the Emmys’ honoring of talk shows, which has been reigned over by several shows in their time of greatest prominence: David Letterman’s “Late Show” won five consecutive prizes in the late 1990s and early 2000s, giving way to a full decade of wins for Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” then two for “The Colbert Report,” a final prize for Stewart, and two wins for John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” It’s a category whose changes come grindingly, as if shifting a battleship, and one in which it would be genuinely surprising to see a win go to someone aside from the decided bard of the moment.
In 2015, the variety-show category was split in two to allow neglected sketch-comedy shows, which had been bulldozed by Letterman, Stewart, and Colbert, to have a shot. But I wonder if the solution to the conundrum of reality shows’ staid existence at the Emmys might be to condense categories. For consumers, there’s not a world of difference between reigning competition-reality champ “The Voice” and “Shark Tank,” winner of the past four Emmys for best structured reality program. (The unstructured-reality field, which has recently included worthy nominees including HBO’s “Project Greenlight” and Viceland’s “Gaycation,” seems the most vibrantly alive of the three reality categories, speaking perhaps to the amount of development on shows that are breaking free from by-now familiar reality conventions.) And bringing the shows of structured reality—which features episode-long arcs—into conversation with the season-long arcs of competition reality TV might prompt interesting questions as to who best executes the fundamentals of reality: Getting us to know, and relate to, characters whom we’re only just meeting, rooting for them in a brief pitch meeting or in challenge after challenge.
Honoring the very best reality has to offer in a way that provided for real competition would necessarily exclude some shows nominated annually, but it would be reflective of a TV environment in which reality-competition shows tend to represent the legacy of a genre, and tightly constructed single-hit reality shows seem like the future. Pitting them against one another would elevate the best of both categories, and leave no viewer feeling like the category was a predictable Emmy moment.