Why TV's Biggest Show Gets Burned by the Emmys

2:19 AM PST 05/26/2011 by Tim Appelo
Michael Becker/Fox; Emmy Courtesy of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

Snubbed by the academy, loved by viewers, American Idol has faced years of punishment for making popularity look so easy.

The biggest show on television is also a big fat Emmy loser.

Sure, Fox's American Idol has pocketed seven statuettes, most for minor techie awards (outstanding picture editing of clip packages, anyone?). But it also earned the dubious distinction of having the second-most consecutive unsuccessful nominations in Emmy history -- 22 -- until its first little win for technical direction in 2007. Idol has also never won its Emmy-show category: outstanding reality-competition program.

It's time for the TV Academy to finally face, well, reality and consider Idol a serious contender -- especially for a season everybody thought would flail without fan favorite Simon Cowell but has soared like a dark-horse Idol contestant.

The academy first recognized reality TV in 2001 when CBS' Survivor won the genre's first statuette, for outstanding nonfiction program (special class). In 2003, it broke the  reality category in two, creating awards for competition and noncompetition shows, like last year's winner, ABC's Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. In 2008, it added an Emmy for reality host, then booted that award from the Primetime Emmy telecast to the more techie Creative Arts Emmys.

Coming off what is arguably its biggest season ever, Idol has never been better poised for Emmy accolades. But the academy must stop punishing the show for being hugely popular. "It's the Star Wars of the genre," says Ron Simon, curator at the Paley Center for Media. "It's seen as too guilty-pleasure for awards respect, but you can't escape the impact it's had." That's putting it mildly: In 2009, Americans cast about 100 million Idol votes (albeit many by repeat voters); only about 90 million voted in the 2010 national election. More Americans vote with their eyeballs for Idol (over 20 million tune in every week) than watch the Primetime Emmy telecast (13.5 million in 2010).

"Idol also rewards positivity, rather than letting you decide which person you despise the most," says Patricia Aufderheide, a former Sundance documentary juror. She says the show's deep pop-culture impact shouldn't be taken lightly, nor that of winners like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, who have changed the music landscape. Sure, voters may be turned off by Idol's blatant embracing of merchandising and product placement, but these elements shouldn't nullify Idol artists' value to the music biz.

The academy also needs to re-evaluate how it judges reality-competition contenders. For seven straight years, 2003 to 2009, Idol lost the reality-competition Emmy to CBS' The Amazing Race, apparently because the latter was more "prestigious," centered on glamorous global-adventure travel and did good by shedding documentary light on places like Burkina Faso.

"Race is much closer to a scripted show," says Simon. "It's seen as an amazing feat of editing, with a lot of cinematic techniques that more traditional voters respond to."

Says Aufderheide: "Idol appears like a formula, where judges just sit there as the parade of losers goes by. But somebody chose all those contestants, cast the judges, coached them, paced that thing to the second. It's the illusion of unfocused reality."

Notes IMDb TV editor Melanie McFarland of other nonwinners, like NBC's hit The Biggest Loser, "Emmy does not have a stellar track record for awarding reality series that are truly transformative."

The academy also resists too much change, like when it allowed Race's streak to be broken by Bravo's high-end foodie fest Top Chef last year. If Emmy had even better sense, Chef would've lost to the transformative-but-still-stylish Project Runway (without which Chef wouldn't exist as Runway pioneered the creative-process reality format). But even Runway got only one Emmy after 16 noms -- for, you guessed it, picture editing.

An Idol Emmy win would offer the academy the kind of PR boost it so desperately needs. Rewarding the show for an unexpectedly stellar season would help voters overcome the perception that they are mindlessly re-honoring the same candidates year after year. And maybe, just maybe, more young viewers would start tuning into the Emmy telecast.

By reversing a tradition of punishing commercial clout and mass appeal, the academy also could help the reality genre evolve to the point where it isn't the Emmys' redheaded stepchild.

But, whatever happens in September, Idol producers can revel in the one prize that really matters: having created one of the most popular shows on television -- ever.          

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