Tough competition in this year's reality Emmy race

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Who knew that during the 100-day WGA strike of 2007-08 that the true victors would be nonscripted, nonfiction programming? In an industry that barely recognizes that "writers" are needed for reality programming, it should have seemed obvious.

But as shows that depended on a roomful of writers struggled with an uncertain future during the strike, and as audiences proved unwilling to sit around for reruns, networks rushed development forward, making rapid deals with those producer to secure future product.

With their future in television firmly cemented, the best of reality and nonfiction programming will step up at the Sept. 21 Emmy Awards with a newfound confidence. The five-year-old categories and their requirements may remain a source of confusion even for those who find themselves honored within them, but virtually everyone agrees that the fields this year are tighter than ever. CBS' "The Amazing Race" has won the reality-competition category every year, while PBS' "The War" is well-armed against all comers in nonfiction series.

"The first year, there were only five shows to pick from for five slots per category," says Mark Koops, executive producer of NBC's "The Biggest Loser." "Now, you have to pick five out of 150 shows. It's like the NCAA tournament. You can rattle off seven to 10 shows that all deserve a place in the nominations."

Adds Jeff Probst, who has hosted CBS' "Survivor" for 16 seasons and is sure to be recognized in the new category of outstanding host for a reality or reality-competition program (see sidebar, page XX), "The jury is still out on whether or not reality is wholly respected as legitimate programming, but I know how hard we work to tell stories that are as compelling as a 'CSI' (CBS) episode, and when you see Bravo's 'Project Runway' win the Peabody Award, that's pretty good. Being recognized at the Emmys has opened a lot of doors by welcoming reality to the family."

Here's this year's family portrait:

FAVORITES (Reality-Competition Program): "American Idol" (Fox), "The Amazing Race" (CBS), "Dancing With the Stars" (ABC), "Survivor" (CBS), "Project Runway" (Bravo), "Top Chef" (Bravo)

"Race's" consistent Emmy win can't be sitting well with contending colleagues at "Runway," "Chef," "Idol," and "Dancing," all of which were nominated last year. And honoring the show again would display a certain lack of imagination on the part of TV academy members -- but one shouldn't bet against the show winning its sixth consecutive statue, which would make it a record holder.

One unconcerned executive is Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative entertainment. "It never hurts to be in the running to win an Emmy, but a lot of shows are the kind of shows you want critics not to like, like 'Moment of Truth,'" he says. "For the ratings to be great with a show like that, the critics need to hate it with a passion." And some shows, Darnell argues, can be punished for their popularity: "Being so big and so popular can work against you, but on a personal note, I'll take being No. 1 over winning an Emmy every day."

Still, he predicts of "Idol": "We'll probably lose."

"Loser" executive producer Koops, who has a chance thanks to the show's inspiring takeaway that reaches beyond a monetary award, is also gunning for a change at the dais. "'Survivor' is the grandfather of all these shows and is so polished and well-produced it deserves an accolade every time," he says. "They continue to set the standard in terms of production value and casting. And at some point 'American Idol,' by sheer popularity, deserves recognition. We're in the business of entertainment, and any show that entertains 30 million people a week deserves to be mentioned in any category."

But if "Race" is outrun, most likely it will be by "Dancing With the Stars," which has gathered heat this year. "Top Chef" and "Project Runway" shouldn't be counted out, especially with the network's well-earned reputation for savvy marketing (and the recent kerfuffle as "Runway" makes plans to relocate to Lifetime).

"Race" executive producer Bertram van Munster says he isn't counting on lightning striking six times, but he's not foolish enough to rule it out. "Everyone I speak to says this is our best season yet, so we have a realistic shot at it."

Still, few are willing to go on the record and bet against "Race." As one executive responded when asked about the other competition in this category, "It doesn't really matter. 'Amazing Race' always wins."

FAVORITES (Reality Program): "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (ABC), "Antiques Roadshow" (PBS), "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" (Showtime), "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List" (Bravo), "Dog Whisperer With Cesar Milan" (National Geographic Channel), "How to Look Good Naked" (Lifetime)

Kathy Griffin stunned audiences last year when she not only won the category, making the show the first individual-driven series to score a reality Emmy, but responded with a vociferous acceptance speech that alienated some with its politically incorrect overtones. She's not likely to pull off an upset like that again -- and if she did, she might have to change the title of her show, bumping herself up to at least the C-list.

For her competitors, a win in this category can weigh heavier than in the reality-competition slot, where more of the shows air on networks at primetime to massive audiences. Says Chris Coelen, CEO of RDF USA, which produces ABC's "Wife Swap," "Naked" and Fox's "Don't Forget the Lyrics," explains, "I don't think people watch 'American Idol' or 'Survivor' because they're nominated for an Emmy. People watch shows because they want to be entertained."

But first they have to hear about them, which is why simply being nominated in this category-and then being campaigned for can make such a difference, especially on a premium service.

"I don't know if the viewers necessarily care about the Emmys," says Robert Greenblatt, Showtime president of entertainment, which boasts past nominees "Penn & Teller" and "This American Life." "But anything that's endorsed by the powers that be as excellent is only good for us. Our sales force can use those nominations with our affiliates. It helps burnish the programming, which is important when you're asking people to pay a fee to get your programming."   

"Penn & Teller," "Roadshow" and "Dog Whisperer" have all been honored with nominations in the past, but if voters are feeling sentimental, look for five-time nominee "Makeover" to be rewarded for its human touch. Accepting the honor would be co-executive producer Denise Cramsey. "I'm always glad to be in the company we're in because our category is usually the same every year," she says, "Repeat contenders who do more than just get lucky or work hard for a year."

FAVORITES (Nonfiction Series): "American Masters" (PBS), "Deadliest Catch" (Discovery), "Inside the Actors Studio" (Bravo), "Survivorman" (Discovery), "The War" (PBS), "The Jewish Americans" (PBS), "This American Life" (Showtime)

Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns' project "The War," about World War II, is looking unbeatable in this category. Still, there should be repeat nominations for last year's heralded "Deadliest Catch," "American Masters," "Biography," and "Studio." "This American Life" received three nominations (writing, directing, cinematography) last year and should get a nod this year for general excellence.

A win in any category would be honor enough, says Showtime's Greenblatt: "It's always helpful to say to audiences, 'You can watch the Emmy-winning 'This American Life' and the Emmy-winning 'Dexter,' " he says.

Discovery's Jeff Hasler agrees, but for his channel a nomination or a win would be a brand booster, too. "When you think about knowledge brands people think of them as being stuffy, and going to school -- but Emmy recognition would be a recognition by our peers that says our brand resonates with people as strongly as bigger networks, or ones that cover wider genres."

FAVORITES (Nonfiction Special): "Kathy Griffin: Straight to Hell" (Bravo), "Great Performances: The New York Philharmonic Live From North Korea" (PBS), "Spielberg on Spielberg" (TCM)

In a category that swings from the profane to the profound, expect prestige and politics to dominate as PBS is likely to take top honors for its New York-meets-Pyongyang orchestra trip -- and don't expect Griffin to find any more love in this category than she would have back up in the reality program one.

Also worth noting: the exceptional merit in nonfiction filmmaking category, which was first introduced in 2005, remains a mystery even for those in the industry. Most networks contacted were still sorting out their entrants at press time, making it too early to bank on what even has a chance in this category for 2008. But the last three years have proven popular for PBS' "The American Experience," which shared the award in 2006 and received nominations in 2005 and 2007. Still, the network to beat this year is HBO -- which has shared the award three years running, winning last year for "Death in Gaza."

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