Reality, nonfiction producers want Emmy rules changes


Here's a reality competition for you: Pit Fox's "American Idol" against CBS' "The Amazing Race." The only problem is that every year, for four consecutive years, "Race" has outstripped "Idol" in capturing the Emmy for outstanding reality-competition program. This leaves "Idol" executive producers Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe wondering: Just what would it take to derail the now-annual "Race" victory train?

Well, running the Emmy show might be a start. So back in February, the two offered their services as producers of the 59th annual Primetime Emmy telecast. Perhaps in some small way, their involvement with the hallowed program could turn the tide in their favor.

But as they say, reality intrudes, and in May, Warwick and Lythgoe opted out of Emmy participation, citing schedules that had grown too busy and overall fatigue. Second, it also could be that Warwick and Lythgoe didn't fancy presiding over what could prove to be a dubious honor. To date, "Idol" has received 22 Emmy nominations -- and lost them all. Were the show to come up winless in three more nominated races this year while at the same time failing to take home a single statuette, it would tie the all-time record of 25 nominations without a victory set by the "Newhart" sitcom.

As the busy producers were unavailable to comment for this story, speculation will have to suffice as to any ulterior motives. But beyond that, the question remains: Can "Race" make it five wins in a row? Or will voters believe it's time to share the wealth?

"Race" co-creator and executive producer Bertram Van Munster, for one, is hoping for the former.

"I have to admit that I was pretty shocked to get a fourth straight win," he says. "I figured people might have grown tired of reading our name on the card, you know? But by the same token, I like to think the success we've had at the Emmys is merited in that we have set a very high standard in our production and never wavered from it. And we still have the same enthusiasm for doing 'Amazing Race' as we did in Year 1."

Van Munster doesn't believe he is in competition with "Idol" because "we do a very different type of show than they do. We're never looking to beat them. But perhaps one of the reasons that we win each year is our show is very entertaining and original, and to some degree all of their episodes appear to be the same thing."

To be sure, a frenetic pacing and well-edited excitement have helped "Race" achieve its sterling Emmy record. And because the reality-competition category is based on a single episodic submission, "Idol" ends up submitting a segment after everyone knows who won the singing competition, which works against it during judging.

It's a familiar problem for CBS' "Survivor," says Mark Burnett, the creator and executive producer of the series credited with starting the whole reality craze. While "Survivor" has been nominated every year since it first became eligible for the Emmys in 2001, it also hasn't won since that first year.

Burnett believes that it's past time to spread the wealth around -- that now it's time to expand the Emmy reality categories to further the interest of fairness and congruity.

"The Television Academy has made really big strides by even simply including reality in its mix," Burnett says. "Considering that most people who vote come from the world of scripted television, it was very much a landmark for which we in reality are quite grateful.

"However, I think it also now behooves the academy to split up the reality-competition category. I'm not sure talent shows like 'American Idol' and 'Dancing With the Stars' and unscripted dramas like 'Survivor' and 'The Amazing Race' should be up against each other. It would be similar to having comedy and drama competing in the same category at this point. It would just seem a logical next step and certainly not at all unreasonable."

To say nothing of the further jumble in reality competition involving the inclusion of what would traditionally be seen as game shows, specifically NBC's "Deal or No Deal" and Fox's "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" along with social engineering competitions such as the CW's "Beauty and the Geek" and NBC's "The Biggest Loser." The category has grown unwieldy in its six years of existence, and Burnett's point -- self-serving though it might be -- is well taken.

Be that as it may, the candidates seen as having the best chance to pull off an upset of "Race" are "Idol" and perhaps Bravo's perennial nominee "Project Runway," with ABC's "Dancing" (nominated last year) also given a strong shot and "Survivor" likely gaining another nomination. In other words, the category stands to look identical or nearly identical to its nominee quintet of 2006.

In the outstanding reality program category, meanwhile, the nomination lineup also could bear a close resemblance to that of last year. That quintet included Showtime's "Penn & Teller: Bullshit!" (a nominee for reality program and for its writing the past three years running), ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (nominated here the past three years and winner the past two), PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" (nominated four of the past five years but still winless), Bravo's "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List" and National Geographic Channel's popular "The Dog Whisperer."

"Home Edition" has to be seen as a favorite to make it three straight victories, though Penn & Teller's series remains an underrated gem that could well pull off a surprise. Also poised to crack the list are ABC's "Supernanny," A&E's "Dog the Bounty Hunter," Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Orange County" and HGTV's "Living With Ed" (about Ed Begley Jr.'s green life).

The biggest eye-opener on last year's reality program list had to be that of Griffin's "D-List" series, which she admits she "thought was a typo."

Griffin adds, "Mind you, I understood all too well that the unbeatable juggernaut of 'Extreme Makeover' would take me down. But oh my God, what a thrill to be able to go to the Emmys and the Governor's Ball and stargaze and stalk Ricky Gervais."

While she views last year's Emmy nom as something of a fluke, Griffin likes to believe she'll be nominated again if for no other reason than she was filmed going to Iraq, "which is something that even ('Home Edition' host) Ty Pennington can't say. I'm hoping that counts for something."

It happens that the outstanding nonfiction series category is going to count for quite a lot this year despite what stacks up to be a profound lack of suspense. That's because the 11-part Discovery Channel series "Planet Earth" was undoubtedly the most-praised single program of the entire TV year, a multipart nature documentary shot in high definition that has been hailed as the most stunning achievement seen in the genre. An Emmy nomination is assured, and in fact, if it fails to win an investigation should be launched.

Alastair Fothergill, who executive produced the British-made series over five years, is gratified that his work so struck a nerve not only in the U.S. but also worldwide.

"I'm delighted, actually," Fothergill says. "I have to say it was the most ambitious and extensive project ever embarked upon by the BBC in terms of its epic scope and scale. We were quite conscious to make sure that this was shot in a true cinematic style, but the backbone was the year of detailed research we did before shooting a single frame. We were determined to photograph the habitats of the planet in a fresh way, and we were fortunate to attract far more than the usual natural history audience.

"This wasn't about trick photography or fast editing or tracking dangerous animals. It was an homage to the natural world, and we allowed the animals and the habitats to speak for themselves. It shows what's possible, I think, when you engage people on an emotional as well as an intellectual level."

Also angling for a nonfiction nomination this time is Showtime's first-year televised version of the iconic Public Radio International/Chicago Public Radio series "This American Life," whose producer and host Ira Glass finds the whole idea of a potential Emmy nomination "really exciting to me and my staff."

Glass adds, "The thing is, were we to land an Emmy nomination, it would help solidify in my mind the idea that we're really on TV. Living in New York City, far from the industry, it's very odd to put a show on television. It feels rather remote. To achieve a nomination would represent an insane moment of coming together with the real TV people."

Showtime president Robert Greenblatt says he has assured Glass repeatedly that he's really on television and couldn't be prouder that his program is on Showtime.

"What's great about 'This American Life' is how you never know what kind of story to expect," Greenblatt says. "It can be whimsical or poignant or dramatic to everything in between. Ira covers the range of American experiences, and it's all compelling. He's like Will Rogers and Ed Sullivan rolled into one. We're so proud to be associated with him."

Assuming that "Planet Earth" and "This American Life" claim two of the five nonfiction series nomination slots, that would leave at least five past and/or perennial nominees to duke it out for the other three spots. Those include A&E's signature series "Biography," which has a total of 11 nominations, with wins in 1997 and 2002; Bravo's "Inside the Actors Studio," which boasts 10 consecutive category nominations but zero wins to show for it; A&E's forensic series "Cold Case Files," nominated two of the past three years; the popular Discovery crab-fishing reality-drama "Deadliest Catch," nominated last year for the first time; and PBS' "American Masters" profile series, a four-time category nominee and winner in 1999, 2003 and 2004.

Other possible nonfiction series nominees include A&E's addiction series "Intervention" and History Channel's "Lost Worlds." It was a History Channel series, "10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America," that won in the category a year ago.

Finally, there is outstanding nonfiction special, sporting a typically wide-ranging and diverse list of candidates this year. Among the favorites for nomination honors are the CBS special "AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Cheers: America's 100 Most Inspiring Films," HBO's "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," TCM's "Brando," Starz's "Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride: Hunter S. Thompson on Film," History Channel's "Jonestown: Paradise Lost," the HGTV docu "Life After Katrina," Starz's "Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film" and the Animal Planet hour "Ocean's Deadliest," the special whose filming led to the tragic death of Steve Irwin after being struck in the heart by the barb from a stingray.