Special Report: Emmy Rules Tweaks Pay Off

Changes to keep up with TV, distinguish reality from non-fiction reflected in noms

RELATED: Four Things You Should Know About the 2010 Primetime Emmys

This year, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) adjusted rules in its Emmy competition to more specifi cally define what a reality show is versus what a non-fiction show is, and by the looks of the competitions among nominees for the genre, the new rules are making the desired impact.

While the outstanding reality-competition program and outstanding non-fiction series have been separate since 2003, this year any non-fiction series with a “reality TV” element of any kind has been kicked immediately to the reality category. The result is non-fiction and reality awards categories that, for the most part, feel reflective of today’s TV environment.

American Idol
is competing against its realitycompetition comrades—ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, CBS’ Amazing Race, CBS’ Survivor, Bravo’s Top Chef and Lifetime’s Project Runway. American Masters is facing off against its fact-based peers—PBS’ American Experience and National Parks, Discovery’s Life and Deadliest Catch, and IFC’s Monty Python: Almost the Truth.

As reality television has become an important genre of its own over the past 10 years, adjusting the awards accordingly has been important to ATAS. Prior to the arrival of reality series, what constituted a non-fiction series was clear-cut. When CBS premiered Survivor in 2000, the academy didn’t quite know what to do with it, so in 2001 it competed in category called Outstanding Nonfi ction Program-Special Class, which it won. It was up against Bands on the Run, Eco-Challenge: Borneo, Junkyard Wars and Road Rules. For those first two or three years of reality programs, the academy had a tough time distinguishing between nonfiction programs and reality, and the category titles were confusing to viewers.

A separate category for reality programs was created in 2003 called Outstanding Reality- Competition Program, and Survivor, Amazing Race and American Idol all were nominated in that category. However, ATAS still didn’t know quite what to do with non-scripted, non-fiction shows, so it also included two shows in the category that felt random: NBC’s Bob Hope tribute, 100 Years of Hope and Humor; and CBS’s AFI’s 100 Years...100 Passions: America’s Greatest Love Stories. Amazing Race won this category that year (and every year thereafter), but the category felt divided.

Clearer divisions

Since then, ATAS has worked to make clear divisions between reality programs, reality-competition programs, non-fiction programs and nonfiction specials so that the categories are clear and programs are competing against their peers. Still, it’s a challenge because ATAS can’t support hundreds of categories, due to time and money constraints, so some categories encompass a broader range of programming than others.

Non-fiction specials are similarly broken out, remaining separate from made-for-TV movies or miniseries, even if some movies or minis, like HBO’s The Pacific, Lifetime’s Georgia O’Keeffe or HBO’s Temple Grandin, are fact-based.

Non-fiction specials cover a lot of ground, ranging from Epix HD’s Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, a documentary about the British comic’s life, to documentarian Morgan Spurlock’s take on 20 years of Fox’s The Simpsons and a retrospective of NBC’s Saturday Night Live in the 2000s.

The category also includes some heavy hitters from the film world: HBO’s documentary on the 2008 election of Barack Obama, produced by actor Edward Norton and writer Stuart Blumberg (The Kids Are All Right), will face off against Clint Eastwood’s biography of American lyricist, singer and songwriter Johnny Mercer, which aired on TCM.

And Sheila Nevins, HBO’s president of documentary and family programming, nabbed her 56th Emmy nomination for HBO’s production of Teddy: In His Own Words, about the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy. Nevins, a veteran producer, has won more Emmys than any other person, with 21.

Non-fiction remains lumped in with reality in some of the technical categories, such as directing, sound editing and sound mixing, so The Amazing Race competes against shows such as Life and National Parks in those. In general, those categories are less divided out, so comedies and dramas also compete against each other in those categories.

E-mail comments to palbiniak@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA