Winner for Emmy’s Most Contested Category

Several reinvented reality series make case for best of the best
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There's an irony to Emmy’s race for best reality competition show, in which reality shows compete to see which of them is best.

Starting in 2003—when Emmy first inaugurated a reality category—until last year, the winner was always CBS’ The Amazing Race. The show was one of the original three shows, along with CBS’ Survivor and Fox’s American Idol, to bring a new brand of reality to primetime television.

Today, reality competition shows are a staple of primetime, but the oldest shows remain the biggest. Idol has been TV’s top-rated show for the past decade. Amazing Race is headed into its 19th season and 10th year on the air, while Survivor is headed into its 23rd season and 11th year on the air.

Other reality competition shows, such as ABC’s Dancing With the Stars and NBC’s The Biggest Loser, have also become ratings juggernauts. This year, NBC launched its first legitimate hit in years with another singing competition show, The Voice.

Cable, and Bravo in particular, has made the realitycompetition genre its own. Two such shows that launched on Bravo—Top Chef and Project Runway— are Emmy favorites. Last year, Top Chef upset Amazing Race to be named Outstanding Reality Competition program after Amazing Race had claimed the title seven years in a row.

This year, several reality competition shows can make good arguments as to why they should take home the crown. Almost every show reinvented itself in some way, which should make this a highly competitive category.

Returning victor Top Chef is coming off of Top Chef:All-Stars, in which favorite contenders from past seasons were brought back to go head-to-head over hot stoves.

When asked what she thought worked about the format tweak, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi says: “All of it. It was wonderful for us to be with all of these great people from seasons’ past. It was nice to see how they had evolved and matured in their cooking technique and their creativity.”

Besides reintroducing a cast that fans already loved or hated, Top Chef is compelling because it features competitive people at the top of their games facing off.

Top Chef is very intense, and it has an authenticity that is hard to fake,” says Lakshmi.

Amazing Race had a strong season with “Unfinished Business,” in which the show’s producers brought back some of the show’s strongest competitors who failed to win because of some glitch—like their taxi getting caught in traffic or getting stuck behind a herd of sheep.

“‘Unfinished Business’ gave the show a unique twist,” says Bertram van Munster, Amazing Race’s cocreator. “All of these people had something to prove and nothing to lose. Most of the contestants who do this don’t do it for the money but for the incredible experience of going around the world. They do it for the sense of adventure and drama and humor that come along with playing this game.”

American Idol
has never won this category, but it has a lot to recommend it this season. The show totally revamped itself, with all of its judges except Randy Jackson leaving and two new judges, Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, joining the panel.

Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe also returned to run the show. Lythgoe took big risks and they paid off: Idol’s 10th-season finale attracted nearly 30 million viewers and was the most-watched finale since 2008.

Similarly, Project Runway has been going through an evolution. Runway moved from Bravo to Lifetime in August 2009, after Bravo’s parent company, NBCUniversal, couldn’t strike a deal with the show’s producer, the Weinstein Co. The show also changed production companies, moving from Magical Elves, which also produces Top Chef, to Bunim- Murray, which is the longtime producer of such shows as MTV’s Road Rules.

This past season, Project Runway went to a 90-minute format, making it the first reality-competition show to do so.

“It had always been a challenge to service the format and tell great stories in an hour,” says Bunim- Murray’s Jonathan Murray. “We start with 16 designers, so that’s a lot of people. By going to 90 minutes, we are really able to tell deeper and stronger stories.”

Those established contenders could also face competition from NBC’s The Voice, which came on strong this spring, and NBC’s The Biggest Loser, which has been a consistent performer for almost seven years.

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

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