Every year, when watching the Emmys, is there a point where you find yourself overwhelmed by feelings of déjà vu? It’s understandable if you do. After all, since 2007, the Outstanding Reality Competition Program has nominated the same five series — The Amazing Race, American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Project Runway, and Top Chef — each and every year.
After hearing the names of the five nominated shows, you may find yourself overcome with a different feeling: frustration. Where’s the love for So You Think You Can Dance? Shark Tank? The Next Food Network Star? How is it that one category has remained so staunchly unchanged when the reality landscape is becoming much more vast and acclaimed?
Blame, for one, the ratings game. “It’s tough for the lower-rated shows to have a chance,” says Tom Forman, CEO of RelativityREAL and creator of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which has won two Emmys in a different reality category, Outstanding Reality Program. “And there is a perception that a handful of shows, most of them network shows, are somehow of higher quality. And the truth is, look, The Amazing Race is an extraordinary undertaking. And when it premiered, it was probably unquestionably the best competitive reality show on television. [Now], it clearly isn’t. I believe the producers would tell you they win that award when they do a great season, [and] they win that award when they do a less great season. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work…. I’ve won Emmys for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. We were nominated for exceptional seasons. We were nominated for less exceptional seasons, because it was a big network show that viewers were aware of.”
Ratings also factor into the way the Emmy ballots are worded. John Leverence, the Television Academy’s SVP of Awards, says that the ballots ask voters to choose series “that you have seen and feel are worthy of nomination,” which gives ratings juggernauts like Idol and DWTS an immediate edge. “When you put in a clause ‘that you have seen,’ it’s good odds that our voters are going to have seen more of the top-rated shows,” Leverence says.
In fact, Emmy voters are often accused of not even being aware of all the reality competition shows that are on the air. “It’s the worst-kept secret in Hollywood: The Emmy voters don’t know the shows,” Forman says. “It’s really hard to cut through the perception that there are a handful of quality shows and everything else is crap. The genre has matured, and the good stuff is really good. The bad stuff is admittedly bad. It all tends to get painted with the same brush, and that’s a bit of a bummer for those of us who work in the genre and take it seriously.”
This year, producers at one smaller cable show are taking matters into their own hands. In an effort to get their reality competition show on Emmy voter’s radar, producers for Logo’s RuPaul’s Drag Race decided for the first time to send out For Your Consideration screeners after a grassroots campaign pushing for the cult favorite to score a nod. The effort — jumpstarted after the network saw fans and bloggers taking to the Internet to root for a nom — has gained some traction, as evidenced by their Facebook page, which has scored over 13,500 friends, and this video, which features famous faces rooting for RuPaul to enter the race.
If the grassroots movement worked for two-time Emmy winner Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List (which picked up trophies for Outstanding Reality Program), the network figures it could work for RuPaul. “That was a show I don’t think anybody ever expected to get that kind of attention, let alone win,” Dave Mace, SVP of Original Programming at Logo, says. “It was definitely an inspiration for us, because it proved that you didn’t have to do a huge, expensive campaign to win in that category. You just needed a groundswell of support.”
So far, Logo’s efforts could be working — RuPaul was recently nominated for a Critic’s Choice Television Award. Of course, the five other nominated series were… The Amazing Race, American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Project Runway, and Top Chef. (American Idol picked up the win.) And it may prove tougher to eke onto Emmy’s list of five nominees as a newbie, even with grassroots support. “You can even get acclaim out there in the Twitter-verse and online and America can be supportive of your show,” Forman says. “But telling Emmy voters to pay attention to a new reality show is hard, because, at the end of the day, it’s really not what they’re watching.”
Is there a way to improve the Outstanding Reality Competition Program category and remedy the déjà vu it evokes each year? Forman thinks having voters check ballots strictly within their own genre might open the door for shows like History’s Top Shot and Bravo’s Work of Art to pick up nominations. “I would quickly tell you that I’m probably not qualified to vote on what makes excellent sound design for a dramatic series,” he says. “[But] within the the reality show community, we watch this stuff really carefully and we think about it and we take it pretty seriously…. I suspect you’d see very different nominations across the board — in every category, but certainly in this one — if you let the folks who really know how to make this stuff do the nominating.”
In the meantime, don’t bother taking risks when it comes to your office pools. The safe bets — Idol, DWTS, Top Chef, Project Runway, and Amazing Race — will probably be the right ones. Silver lining?
Follow Kate on Twitter @KateWardEW