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Nonfiction categories are stranger than fiction

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Although Emmy's nonfiction categories honor some of television's most diverse programming, there's one constant among the reality-competition nominees that never seems to change.

For four years running, CBS' "The Amazing Race" has snared the prize in that slot, while TV's top-rated program, Fox's "American Idol," has continued as a bridesmaid, never a bride. In fact, "Idol" has never won a single statuette, despite being nominated 22 times in the four years previous to this one -- a lot of losing for a very popular series. Should it pick up no wins this year, "Idol" would beat the all-time record of losses without a single win (25) held by "The Bob Newhart Show."

Although "Idol's" executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick were not available to speak about the possible outcome of this year's ceremony, Bertram Van Munster, creator and executive producer of "Amazing Race," says he's rather looking forward to the evening.

"It feels great that the quality and execution we put into our show has been so consistently rewarded," he says. "I feel like we've set something of a standard for this genre, and the good news is that I think the show is as strong as it's ever been. But that doesn't happen by accident. We put so much work into 'Amazing Race' every week."

A key question for the category is whether any show besides "The Amazing Race" and "American Idol" even has a chance to win. ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" has now been nominated for two years running in the reality-competition grouping and is seen as having an outside chance, in part because its ABC sister "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" does so well in the reality program lineup, and there could well be some spillover support.

Then there is the pair of long shots from Bravo: "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" (nominated for the first time), both from the production shop Magical Elves -- which also created and produced "Project Greenlight" -- and its principals, Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth. They were naturally thrilled to have landed such a double honor from the TV academy, admitting that they were full-on "shocked" upon hearing the news.

"It was just an incredible validation of the passion we put into making both of these shows," Lipsitz says. "We feel like it honors the good, earnest storytelling that we infuse into both 'Runway' and 'Chef.' It sounds trite, but we put a lot of heart and soul into what we do. Viewers get invested in the characters on each of these shows, and designers and chefs are by their very nature charismatic, fascinating characters."

Lipsitz adds that she takes particular pride in the Emmy nominations for shows that "are made for about a quarter of the cost of 'Amazing Race,' 'American Idol' and 'Dancing With the Stars.' We're able to do a scaled-down production and still compete at a high level for Bravo, and I have to say that feels very good."

"Project Runway" has an outside chance of victory this year; it's seen as a solid third choice behind "Amazing Race" and "American Idol." Indeed, this being the Emmys, anything remains possible, even an upset victory by a show featuring would-be fashion designers competing against a network series bidding for its fifth triumph in succession.

Meanwhile, in the outstanding reality program category, two-time winner "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" will lock horns with the same four nominees it faced a year ago: Bravo's "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List," National Geographic Channel's "The Dog Whisperer With Cesar Millan," PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" and "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" from Showtime.

"It's nice to get nominated year after year in this category, but I have to say it would also be nice to win at some point," emphasizes "Bullshit!" executive producer Star Price. "I have to be honest and also tell you that I'm a little bit surprised that no other series has tried to do what we do -- namely, look at the issues of the day in tandem with nutty comedy. Our show is deceptively simple-looking. The truth is it's very tough to try to be funny and also incorporate nudity in there somewhere."

For her part, comedian Kathy Griffin maintains she was "robbed" last year in her show's first nomination and points out that she should "wipe the floor" with "Antiques Roadshow" since her program traveled to Iraq during this past season while "Roadshow" "didn't so much as pick up a crappy piece of memorabilia in Baghdad. I risked my life. I doubt any other nominee can say the same. Shouldn't that be worth something?"

Griffin acknowledges, "I can't build homes like 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.' I'm sorry, OK? Their budget for craft services is bigger than my full season of production. But here's what I promise: If I win, it will be water-cooler talk for weeks. I may just scream or do something really edgy."

In the race for top nonfiction series, Discovery Channel's massively praised "Planet Earth" is seen as the heavy favorite this year over A&E's "Biography," PBS' "American Masters," Discovery's crab fishing drama "Deadliest Catch" and Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio." The fishing drama has had its life-and-death moments, but "Actors Studio" host James Lipton picked up his own lifetime achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences this year, which gave him and the show an added boost of publicity.

The nominees for nonfiction special are paced by the Turner Classic Movies two-part bio "Brando," which will compete with HBO's "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," CBS' "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Cheers: America's Most Inspiring Movies," and a pair of History Channel projects, "Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed" and "Blood Diamonds." Still, diverse though its subjects may be, there's almost no other category that proves just how strange the juxtapositions can be in the nonfiction field. Just try to imagine the judges trying to choose between Obi-Wan and the ultimate method actor, or a list of top American films -- and one of America's lowest historical points.

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Spot-checks: Five things you might not know about the Emmy-nominated nonfiction picks

"The Amazing Race" has an opportunity to join "Frasier" as the only network primetime series ever to win five Emmy statuettes in a row in the same category.

"Dancing With the Stars" is bidding to become the first ABC series ever to win in the reality-competition series category.

PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" has earned an Emmy nomination in the reality program category for five of the past six years, missing out only in 2004.

ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" is looking to make it three wins in as many years in the reality program lineup. It also was nominated in 2004, though it failed to win.

The nominations for the past two seasons of Bravo's "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List" marks the first time a comedian ever has landed nods in the reality program category.

--Compiled by Ray Richmond