Emmys: Stagnant Reality Genre Could Lead to Yet Another 'Amazing Race' Win

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From left: 'So You Think You Can Dance,' 'The Bachelor' and 'MasterChef Junior'

The unscripted competition category has been impenetrable since it launched 13 years ago, as network execs scramble to reinvent a broken genre, where new hits are as rare as an A-lister on 'Dancing With the Stars.'

Winning 10 times since the category's 2003 inception, The Amazing Race's dominance in the reality competition field says just as much about its genre as it does about Emmy voters' tastes. These days, it's nearly impossible to launch a big broadcast reality competition, an elite circle of programming that has left networks to gear new efforts toward games, variety and a less competitive approach to talent.

"There's still room for new hits; they just need to feel fresh and current," says reality superproducer Mark Burnett. "From a core content perspective, it's got to make sense. If I told you the premise of The Voice, you'd get it easily."

That's because the singing competition is relatively familiar. At the onset of broadcast's reality push, a clear trend emerged: Pick a dozen or so personalities, famous or unknown, and whittle them down with heavily produced or often absurd scenarios — either at the far reaches of the globe (Survivor) or in a brightly lit Burbank studio (Big Brother). But, as reality's rare new hits illustrate, that formula still is at its saturation point. The Voice was the last competition to break through in the ratings — a feat that's since escaped brief big swings such as Fox's Utopia, NBC's Million Second Quiz or ABC's Rising Star — and even NBC's flagship is aging. The last singing show standing, it just hit the five-year mark. "We are going to venture a little bit into things that feel outside of the traditional shiny-floor show," NBC unscripted chief Paul Telegdy said during a May 24 Hollywood Radio and Television Association panel. "Sometimes you've just got to piece something together that feels right in the moment."

One thing that feels right for the network is Little Big Shots, vying for a nom in the structured reality race, where a few new shows have managed to break through (see Lip Sync Battle, below). Averaging 12.4 million viewers in its freshman run, the kid talent show is reality's big breakout — a status achieved without the competitive spirit that network execs have pushed for in the play for peak American Idol success. "Some of the kids' parents wouldn't let them go on talent shows because they don't want them to be hurt," says Little Big Shots executive producer and Warner Bros. Television reality topper Mike Darnell. "There were a lot of people when we started selling it that were nervous because it wasn't a competition [and thought] no one would watch it."

Little Big Shots also boasts TV's current golden boy, Steve Harvey, 59, as its host. The comedian and daytime talker also fronts primetime competition show Celebrity Family Feud. Its 2015 summer run did well enough to give ABC the confidence for a block of nostalgic game shows. Feud will be joined by revivals of The $100,000 Pyramid (with Michael Strahan hosting) and Match Game (Alec Baldwin) come June 26. "We have a very large library, so we're hopeful this game block works and we'll have the opportunity to do more with ABC and other networks," says FremantleMedia North America co-CEO Jennifer Mullin, behind both Feud and NBC summer standard America's Got Talent. "The original shiny-floor competitions and the field shows are still very strong. They're going to hang around for a while."

The more pressing question is whether The Amazing Race can steal back the Emmy from The Voice, which won in 2015. The show hasn't lost two consecutive times since the birth of the category. "What Amazing Race has going for it is that it pioneered reality and reality competition," notes TV Academy president and COO Maury McIntyre. "You can argue for fresh blood, but when voters say it's the top show, it's hard to discount that."

This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.