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This story first appeared in the June 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Reality always has been a genre rife with controversy and unpredictability, so it’s only natural these qualities have crept into its Emmy races. The one true historic favorite — CBS’ The Amazing Race — lost last year to NBC’s The Voice after winning nine times. Also, the noncompetition category has been split into two groups this year. Here are five reasons why reality’s now-decade-old stake in the Emmy race makes it more relevant than ever.
1. A rule change has yielded two new categories
Among the TV Academy’s several new tweaks to voting this year is the retirement of the generically named “noncompetition reality program” in favor of two new subcategories: “structured” and “unstructured” reality. This translates to noncompetition series being separated even further based on whether they are more formatted fare — such as ABC’s Shark Tank, CBS’ Undercover Boss and PBS’ Antiques Roadshow — or less formatted docuseries such as A&E’s Duck Dynasty, History’s Pawn Stars and Discovery’s Deadliest Catch. The ancestral “noncompetition reality” category saw CBS’ Undercover Boss winning in 2012 and 2013, so this long-overdue split all but guarantees a first-time winner.
2. A controversial year for the genre means more chatter among voters
If all press is good press, then it has been a banner year for Duck Dynasty. The A&E juggernaut — already poised to benefit from the aforementioned reality split — spent months in the daily news cycle starting in December thanks to patriarch Phil Robertson‘s anti-gay comments published in GQ. It has been a PR gift that keeps on giving, with the unapologetic Robertson making similar comments in an Easter “sermon” that has gone viral just before Duck‘s sixth season, giving it the most exposure of any series this year. On broadcast, the typically warm-and-fuzzy The Biggest Loser on NBC drew criticism for winner Rachel Frederickson looking gaunt after dropping 155 pounds. But it’s a cache of so-called “naked” reality shows that could become upstarts because of their edgy conceits: Discovery’s Naked and Afraid — wherein nude castaways must survive the perils of the outdoors, was a hit when it premiered in March as the No. 2 nonfiction cable series among most male viewers, second only to AMC’s The Walking Dead.
3. Singing competitions are finally in play — for now
The overall sickly state of singing competitions has done little to deter the momentum of last year’s winner, The Voice. While viewership is down, it’s still NBC’s crown jewel, becoming only the second series ever to swipe the competition crown from The Amazing Race (in 2013). Sure, Race could rebound to victory (as it did in 2011 after a one-off Top Chef win), but Emmy history says it’s tough to make multiple comebacks. And after another year of wild ratings drops on Fox (and an even bigger loss in buzz), the sun appears to have set on American Idol, which hasn’t seen a nom since 2011. Oddly, the decade-old Project Runway could be one to watch: Always a bridesmaid in the competition category, the show netted host wins for Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum last year, proving that it still courts a great deal of favor in the TV Academy.
4. Diversity is making a long-overdue appearance in the race
Reality’s winners and nominees historically have been awash in white, but the growing success of black-fronted series hit critical ratings mass in the past year. The Real Housewives of Atlanta is quite handily the MVP on Bravo’s sprawling unscripted roster, and VH1’s Love & Hip Hop and Basketball Wives franchises are two of the most talked about on cable. They’re not traditional awards bait, but the new “unstructured” reality category leaves the door open for surprises.
5. Docuseries no longer are guilty pleasures
Another subgenre that could benefit from the category split are such docuseries as Keeping Up With the Kardashians and the Real Housewives franchise. And their series’ format actually has a respectable Emmy track record: Before the Emmy reality genre was split into competition and noncompetition in 2003, MTV’s The Osbournes scored the second-ever statuette. Between the Kardashian empire and newcomers like True Tori, Tori Spelling‘s candid Lifetime show about the travails of her marriage to Dean McDermott, there’s no shortage of buzzy docuseries drawing big numbers. And now that they’re as much an Us Weekly cover fixture as they are backwoods entrepreneurs, the cast of Duck Dynasty has — for better or worse — officially segued into celebrity status, giving the show yet another bizarre edge in what is shaping up to be a wild race.
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