Critics' Choice Real TV Awards: How Unscripted Content Got Its Own Big Show

Courtesy of VH1; CBS via Getty Images; David Moir/Bravo; Karolina Wojtasik/Bravo; Christopher Smith/Netflix

Series such as 'RuPaul's Drag Race,' 'Survivor' and more are in the spotlight at the inaugural event, taking place June 2 and airing a week later on VH1.

Reality TV has grown up. The Wild West vibe of the early 2000s, with producers emphasizing envelope-pushing and shock value, has given way to a more mature and broader genre that includes competition shows, docuseries, travelogues and numerous other types of unscripted programs.

And now, this genre has its own awards show: The inaugural Critics' Choice Real TV Awards will take place June 2 and air June 9 on VH1. The Broadcast Television Journalists Association has taken unscripted shows from its Critics' Choice Movie and TV Awards and will honor them separately in conjunction with NPACT, the trade organization for producers of nonfiction TV.

The choice of naming the awards — "Real TV" vs. "Reality TV" — was a deliberate one, says NPACT GM John Ford. "The word 'reality' has for some people a negative connotation," says Ford, a former Discovery and National Geographic exec. "That's part of why we call ourselves the Nonfiction Producers Association because we encompass documentary and all forms, including reality. It's a subtle difference, but it's a difference with a real distinction to it."

The Critics' Choice Movie and TV Awards included unscripted categories, but in recent years they've ended up being cut from the televised portion of the ceremony. Still, says Joey Berlin, president of the BTJA and executive producer of the awards, "reality producers would insist on coming to the show anyway to support their nominations and see who won."

NPACT held its own awards focused on producing in 2018, around the time Berlin and fellow Critics' Choice Awards producer Bob Bain were thinking about spinning off the unscripted portion. "We saw the NPACT event was coming up last May and said, 'Wow, we should check this out and see. Maybe there's some symbiosis here,' " says Berlin. "It was a really fun thing, well attended, and we thought that if we brought what we do together with what these guys were doing, we could have an impactful event."

Berlin says the critics' group bought into the idea, but there was one especially daunting aspect to putting the show together: the volume of unscripted programs. More than 1,700 aired the past year, he notes — that's more than three times the number of scripted series. In the end, the group received about 500 shows for consideration, and a panel of BTJA members determined nominees, with the option to pick from outside the submissions as well.

"We were very gratified when the submissions count came in at over 500, which for a first-year show was way beyond our expectations," says Ford. "There's a lot of enthusiasm in the production community."

The plan had been for the event to be untelevised for its first year, says Berlin. "The first five Critics' Choice Movie Awards weren't televised. The documentary awards aren't televised," he says. "It's important to build a foundation of credibility and industry support before you take it out for public viewing."

But when the producers began having conversations about working with platforms on the fan-voted categories, VH1 "offered to put the show on television," says Berlin. "So it has actually come together quicker and more strongly than even we anticipated."

The Real TV Awards (hosted by comedian Loni Love) will present honors in 27 categories, including three juried awards voted on by members of NPACT and two fan-determined awards (for male and female star of the year). VH1's RuPaul's Drag Race (five noms) and Netflix's Queer Eye (four) lead the way; categories cover everything from competition, travel and adventure series to culinary shows.

Ford admits to some nervous moments. "The principal anxiety for me was that we were going to throw a party and no one would show up," he says. "Of course, it looks like we're going to have a tremendous event. But all of that was an unknown when we hatched the idea last fall. So a lot of finger-crossing and nail-biting on my part."

One thing the Real TV Awards won't feature is tropes of the unscripted genre. "We're looking at doing a very traditional, black-tie awards show," says Berlin. "There have been some reality television awards efforts that kind of poked fun at the genre in general, and we don't see it this way. We think this should be played straight and recognize the best of the best in a really important field."

This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.