At the Emmys, reality television makes for strange bedfellows.
Case in point: the Emmy category of Outstanding Reality Program. Year after year, this is the oddest, strangest, most diverse and most perplexing Emmy category of all, in which shows go head-to-head against competitors with whom they have virtually nothing in common.
In the past, “The Osbournes” has beaten out “Trauma: Life in the E.R.,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” has won over “Colonial House,” “Intervention” has beaten “Dog Whisperer.”
And this year, the category gives us antiques appraisers vs. cricket farmers. A do-gooder star chef vs. a foul-mouthed minor celebrity. Scientists on a quest for truth vs. moonlighting CEOs struggling with entry-level positions.
“It’s a potpourri of programming, isn’t it?” says Ryan Seacrest, who in addition to his jobs with “American Idol” and E! and on the radio also serves as the executive producer of one of the nominees, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” (right).
“It is hard to figure out the theme to this category. It’s almost like a group of shows that people feel should be recognized … but we’re not quite sure where to put them, so we’ll stick them in the same silo together.”
This year’s nominees:
— “Antiques Roadshow,” the 15-year PBS institution in which experts appraise treasures and castoffs brought in by the public;
— “Dirty Jobs,” the Discovery Channel series that features Mike Rowe tackling the most difficult, dangerous and disgusting professions he can find;
— “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” ABC’s series in which celebrity chef Oliver tried to change the eating habits of America’s most obese city by focusing on schoolchildren;
— “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List,” Bravo’s no-holds-barred chronicle of the profane comedian’s life and career; “
— MythBusters,” the influential Discovery series in which various claims are put to the test; and
— “Undercover Boss,” this past season’s CBS hit featuring top executives going undercover (often haplessly) in their companies’ most menial jobs.
Why do those shows belong in the category? Who knows?
“It’s an odd soup,” says Craig Piligian, the executive producer of “Dirty Jobs.” “If you really look at it, apples to apples, it doesn’t seem to add up.”
Adds Marsha Bemko, the executive producer of “Antiques Roadshow,” “I don’t think we belong in this mix, but I’m glad to be there. And in fairness to the Academy, where would you put us?”
Chalk up the occasionally confounding diversity to that word reality, which can encompass almost every non-scripted show on television.
While many of the best-known shows in the genre – “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “American Idol” – have a separate Emmy category for competitive reality shows, the catchall Outstanding Reality Program designation includes everything else.
“Reality has such a wide range of definitions,” says Dan Tapster, executive producer of “MythBusters.” “Constantly, there have been more shows that are eligible for this category than maybe any other.”
For "Roadshow" producer Bemko, one thing does bring the shows together: "None of our shows are scripted," she says. "We truly don't know what we're going to find. So at the core of each of these shows, I guess, it is a reality show."
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences went through a few different configurations before creating the Outstanding Reality Program and Outstanding Reality Program – Competition categories. “Antiques Roadshow,” for instance, was first nominated in the now-defunct Outstanding Non-Fiction Series (Informational) category in 2002, while “Survivor” got its first nomination in 2001 in another eliminated category, Outstanding Non-Fiction Program (Special Class).
“We had fought to get into the Academy that first year,” says Piligian, who served as a producer on “Survivor” for that show’s first three seasons. “The category was odd back then, too.”
(“Survivor” won in 2001, over competitors including MTV’s “Road Rules” and TLC’s “Junkyard Wars.”)
The nominees have some interesting dynamics among them. “Antiques Roadshow’s” Bemko says she is a big fan of “Dirty Jobs” and has “a huge crush” on its host, Mike Rowe (right); “Dirty Jobs” producer Piligian says “Roadshow” is “absolutely my favorite show.”
And then there’s Kathy Griffin and Ryan Seacrest.
“Ryan is my arch-nemesis,” says the quintessential trash-talker Griffin, a five-time nominee who won in the category in 2007 and 2008. “He has been slowly plotting against me, ever since he was a young, unknown DJ in Atlanta.”
At issue in her mock anger at Seacrest: His show has a bigger budget than hers, and he’s much richer. “He was never supposed to produce a reality show. But now he gets his hour on ‘Oprah’ to promote his gigantic-budget show, and now he cares about beating me,” she says.
(“I think Kathy feels that I’m out to get her,” says Seacrest. “I’m trying my best, but she’s tough to get.”)
Bad blood aside, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” is considered the frontrunner by several of the other nominees; it has the advantage of a major network behind it (whereas Griffin paid for her own Emmy ad and “Roadshow” doesn’t campaign at all), as well as a lauded attempt to improve the health of children and fight an epidemic of childhood obesity.
“It’s flattering if they’ve chosen us to be the frontrunners,” says Seacrest. “but look, you cannot predict how the Academy is going to vote. I’ve sat in that seat and lost for ‘Idol’ eight or nine seasons in a row, so you never know exactly how it’s going to pan out.”
Still, every nominee in the field has a plausible case for winning. “Antiques Roadshow” is a 15-year institution with eight nominations but no victories. “MythBusters” (right) has become a cultural phenomenon of sorts, credited with spurring interest in scientific and engineering studies at colleges around the country.
“My Life on the D-List,” for all of Griffin’s gleeful bad taste, has a real heart, and its Emmy submission is an episode in which she took a group of ostracized kids from an LGBT center in Los Angeles to a gay rights rally in Sacramento. “Dirty Jobs” has a charismatic, unbelievably game host and makes the valuable point that we shouldn’t ignore the people who do the jobs that nobody wants. “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” has an important social issue to go with the chef's crowd-pleasing élan. “Undercover Boss” (left) is a major-network hit that ends every episode with a string of feel-good moments.
And because it’s easier to be honest when you’re not one of the highest-profile Emmy categories, all of the shows are open about the fact that they really want to win.
Griffin, of course, is most unabashed in her lobbying. “I’m trying a cheap ploy to get votes: if I win, I guarantee to have a victory speech that is water-cooler talk,” says the comic, who also promises not to go as far as she did in one of her previous wins.
“Now, I’m not gonna tell Jesus to suck it this time. I’m not gonna be ushered out of the room. But I have a little something planned. And I don’t have something planned if I lose, because I don’t want people to not vote for me thinking it’ll be funny if I lose. So I am planning outrageous victory comments – and by the way, nobody from ‘Antiques Roadshow’ is doing that.”
Eventually, though, even Griffin’s trash-talking gives way to a common sentiment: This may be the weirdest Emmy category, but everybody’s happy to be there.
“If I can be corny for a second, the truth is that it’s seriously staggering for a 49-year-old, potty-mouthed comedian with no Hollywood ties to be in this company,” says Griffin. “It’s no joke, it’s still a freaking Emmy.
“And you know what? There ain’t no other category for me. I’m never gonna get an Oscar, I’m not an actress, so I’m not getting the SAG or the Golden Globe or the Kennedy Center Honor. This is it. These are my peeps, this is my award, this is it.”