Culture clash

Kathy Griffin's Bravo reality series was recently nominated for an Emmy. Seeing the name of a celebrity-ridiculing, D-list comedian on the list of nominees was somewhat unusual, but the list of her competitors was even stranger, as Griffin noted on The View.
September 1, 2006

Kathy Griffin’s Bravo reality series was recently nominated for an Emmy. Seeing the name of a celebrity-ridiculing, D-list comedian on the list of nominees was somewhat unusual, but the list of her competitors was even stranger, as Griffin noted on The View.

‘Can we talk about my category?’ she asked, pointing out that she was nominated alongside ‘the Antiques Roadshow twins… Come on, I went to Iraq! They go to look at tchotchkes.’

Griffin’s dilemma is one that has plagued the Emmys since reality joined dramas and sitcoms on networks. Anyone who needs evidence that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is out of touch with people who actually watch TV need only look at the way it classifies non-fiction.

Nominated for ‘Outstanding Reality Program’ were series that couldn’t be more different: Antiques Roadshow; The Dog Whisperer; Extreme Makeover: Home Edition; Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List; and Penn & Teller: Bullshit! How does one choose between Ty Pennington showing off products paid for by sponsors, and Las Vegas comedians making sociopolitical arguments while calling their interview subjects ‘assholes?’

In the ‘Outstanding Reality Competition Program’ there’s an even odder assortment, despite the narrower definition: The Amazing Race; American Idol; Dancing with the Stars; Project Runway; and Survivor. Sure, each involves a competition, but otherwise they’re entirely different. Only Dancing and Idol can be fairly compared, as they’re both a talent search. Runway is about talent, but comparing it to Idol is like comparing apples to Apple Jacks cereal.

There’s also a ‘Non-fiction Series’ category for ‘traditional’ non-fiction, and it includes both A&E’s Biography and Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, two shows that present information and entertainment in completely opposite ways.

Incredibly, these categories improve on ones used in the past. In 2001, the Academy announced it would recognize ‘programming that depicts people and/or events in dramatic circumstances with the primary intent to entertain’ via two new categories. That happened after CBS lobbied for a category that would allow its ratings-dominant Survivor to compete outside the typical non-fiction categories.

Since then, there’s been evolution. In 2003, reality was broken into four separate categories: two for reality TV; one for ‘traditional’ non-fiction series; and one for specials.

The Academy cannot, of course, construct individual categories for every show. At the very least, that’d make the telecast run for days. And the diversity of offerings, as evidenced by the way shows can’t be narrowly defined, is something to be appreciated. Also, reality TV isn’t the only genre affected. Any time programs are categorized, there will be those that don’t fit. Desperate Housewives was nominated as a comedy, for example, which in itself is funnier than the series.

Some of the blame for this might belong to producers and networks who submit entries for consideration, but are limited to poor options. But even the Academy isn’t entirely to blame. Ultimately, what the existing non-fiction program categories really illustrate is the fact that reality television is still misunderstood.

One of the biggest problems the non-fiction industry faces is the blanket label of ‘reality TV,’ which causes some people to foam at the mouth and others to hyperventilate with excitement. Even though many shows have been clones of one another, not all non-fiction programs follow under the classification of ‘reality TV,’ loosely defined by me as shows which have The Real World as an ancestor. Describing a doc or an old-school home repair series as reality both deprives those programs of their uniqueness and denies shows like Survivor the credit they deserve for introducing a different type of storytelling.

The Academy’s current categories do that to some degree, but they deny producers a chance to have their work compete fairly against similar programs. Throwing all reality-based shows into a pile doesn’t offer anyone the chance to appreciate their diversity or recognize those that stand out.

If Antiques Roadshow‘s tchotchkes had defeated Kathy Griffin in August – Extreme Makeover actually did – that result would be neither a victory nor a loss, because all five shows in that group are too different to compare fairly. But at least Griffin would have material for her act.

Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred ( and writes television criticism for

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.