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For the past five years, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has awarded an Emmy for outstanding reality-competition program. And for the past five years, its voters have given that award to CBS’ “The Amazing Race.”
Ambitious, exciting and technically challenging, “Race” is a worthy Emmy recipient.
Yet the reality production community, and even many critics, have gone from applauding the perennial “Race” victory to feeling downright exasperation. As “Project Runway” executive producer and three-time competition Emmy runner-up Jane Lipsitz succinctly puts it, “It becomes, ‘Really?’ ”
Yeah. Exactly. Really. Through no fault of its own, “Race” has evolved into the “Boston Legal” of reality shows: older-skewing viewers and softish 18-49 demo ratings yet with a mantel lined with Emmys. Reality insiders snark that it wins the Emmy because it’s the only reality show that stodgy academy voters actually watch.
But this year, there’s another program that deserves to halt the “Race” Emmy reign, and it’s tough to believe that even Emmy voters haven’t seen it.
As another reality producer says, “How is it that ‘Survivor’ has not won the competition Emmy?”
“The show made the reality genre what it is today,” adds the producer, whose own shows have competed against those of “Survivor” executive producer Mark Burnett. “It’s 8 years old and wins a very tough Thursday time slot every week.”
One has to go back to “Survivor’s” debut season in 2000 to tally an Emmy victory. The CBS series picked up two awards, including one for the now-defunct outstanding nonfiction program. Since then, it has been nominated 24 times in various categories without a win. In 2003, the academy created the outstanding reality-competition program category, and “Race” has dominated every year.
Of course, Fox’s “American Idol” also is long overdue for a major Emmy victory (“How can a show watched by 30 million people never win?” the producer asks). Likewise, Bravo’s “Runway” always is a solid contender, as is the cable net’s “Top Chef,” which is wrapping a terrific season this week. NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” and Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” are underappreciated by academy voters and also worth a nod.
But this season, it’s easiest to make a winning case for “Survivor.”
The reality community, critics and fans hailed the spring’s “Survivor Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites” cycle as one of the best in the show’s whopping 16 editions, if not the best.
MSNBC wrote: ” ‘Survivor’ is a human game of chess, and this season the strategy and game play was thrilling to watch as pawns repeatedly and unexpectedly bumped off more powerful pieces and other pieces fell off in startling ways. … It followed an exponential curve, transforming into a season worthy of the designation of ‘best season ever.’ “
For those who missed it, the “Fans vs. Favorites” setup made for a compelling spin on the typically sleepy format of bringing back former contestants to compete — the eager yet less-experienced newcomers prevented the veterans from phoning in their return games. The edition featured three cast members leaving the game prematurely from either quitting or being evacuated because of injury. The endgame had the show’s first all-female final four, a quartet as devious as they were inspiring.
Most impressive for longtime fans were the number of masterful manipulations executed by the cast, a spree of last-minute twists and blindsides that had viewers yelling at their TV sets.
Granted, such factors might not be the direct result of producer creativity. But that’s also what made the season so rewarding. The relatively hands-off “Survivor” design can result in long stretches of predictability. Fans grow accustomed to contestants hatching ambitious schemes that are doomed to fail. So to watch — against all odds and previous viewing experience — the dramatic tumblers fall perfectly into alignment and result in a streak of dramatically satisfying upsets made for a thrilling weekly hour of television.
“Race” is a great show. But “Survivor” deserves the Emmy.
James Hibberd can be reached at james.hibberd@THR.com
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