The Television Academy’s creation of a Reality Peer Group in 2012 marked a formal recognition of both the impact of reality programming on television, and the process of crafting it. Here, members of the group, including those who worked to establish it, reveal how they think it will influence reality’s presence at the Emmy Awards and beyond.
The numbers don’t lie. A look at the top 20 original shows on ad-supported cable in the U.S. for 2012 in the 18-49 demo, according to live plus 7 data from Nielsen, shows that 11 of those 20 shows are reality programs. And in broadcast, such reality titans as American Idol and The Voice and non-talent competition series such as Survivor and The Amazing Race still pull in big, broadcast-friendly audiences.
Now, thanks to concerted efforts from producers and network execs within the membership of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences – the body overseeing the Primetime Emmy Awards – reality programming and the teams behind it have effectively earned a seat at the Television Academy table, with the formation of a Reality Peer Group, announced in May of 2012.
Prior to that announcement, Academy members working in reality were part of the Non-Fiction Peer Group, along with documentary TV professionals.
As the Academy watched reality become a potent programming force not just in America but globally, it became evident to an increasing number of members that it deserved clearer representation.
“For some in the Academy, there wasn’t a real strong sense [several years ago] that this was a form that was going to last,” says Dan Birman, doc producer and a longtime member of the Academy, who also serves as governor of the Non-Fiction Peer Group (now renamed the Documentary Peer Group) and chair of the Television Academy’s membership committee. “Our argument back then was, ‘Look, this is a f driving this town. And we’ve got to recognize that. How big is it going to get? We don’t know, but it’s big now.’”
Certainly, Birman and others in the doc and reality camps saw where the two types of programming diverged. “When you get to a divide in a road, do you contrive the premise or do you not contrive the premise?” he says. “That’s a line that documentarians can’t cross.” Still, they could also see where there were similarities – “Traditionally, [reality] has been non-scripted,” he says – and so the move was made to bring reality professionals into the Non-Fiction Peer Group fold. But as reality grew on cable and broadcast schedules, so too did the numbers in the peer group, and a sense within that group that the Academy needed to recognize the genre more fully.
“It had always been sort of the orphan child [in the Non-Fiction Peer Group], and I think that’s part of the reason why reality people hadn’t participated as much in the voting on Emmys, and hadn’t really participated as much in the Academy,” says Bunim/Murray Productions chairman Jon Murray, another longtime Academy member, and along with A&E EVP of programming David McKillop, a governor of the Reality Peer Group. “They felt a little lost in it.
“Frankly, what we do in reality TV is very different from what someone does in making a documentary series, which is essentially what the Non-Fiction group was involved in,” he adds. “So there was definitely a feeling that these are two different crafts, two different approaches to creating content. With Dan’s leadership we began the process of bringing it up.”
Murray recalls attending an early membership committee meeting addressing the topic, and admits, “there were some very concerned people.” Birman also says that “it was a push” to gain acceptance for the idea within the governance of the Academy, but mainly due to concerns over how adding another peer group to the 28 already housed within it would impact processes.
“We spent time with the awards department, with the membership committee, with key board members and staff, and worked it through one step at a time,” says Birman, also giving credit to fellow Non-Fiction Peer Group governors Mark Samels and Shari Cookson for their efforts. “By the time it came to a vote, there wasn’t any real strong contention.”
“Once you sat down and read them the numbers about the importance of reality TV and how much of the business [was made up of] Academy members in reality, there wasn’t much of a push-back at all,” says McKillop. “This was not a revolution – it was an evolution.”
Thus, the way was cleared for the creation of the Reality Peer Group, which currently includes network executives Sharon Levy, Spike TV’s EVP of original series, and ABC Entertainment EVP of alternative and late-night series John Saade, along with prodco execs such as Original Productions CEO Philip Segal, Shine America president Eden Gaha, and Ryan Seacrest Productions CEO Adam Sher, among others.
Further evolution also came in the form of clarification for the two reality programming categories – the reality competition and the reality program awards – and changes in the voting process for them.
“The previous wording of those two was very long and detailed,” says Murray. “So we really streamlined them to basically state that the idea is that [reality's] primary purpose is entertainment.”
As for voting, once nominees for the various categories are selected out of an initial longlist, final voting is conducted by “blue ribbon” panels comprised of volunteers from various peer groups.
“What we’d discovered is that with those awards, the people who had participated in those blue ribbon panels had been [from] peer groups other than non-fiction, and specifically, very few reality people had been participating in them,” says Murray. “I’d say probably less than 10% were actual reality members who were voting on their own awards.”
Thus, the Reality Peer Group executive committee devised a system whereby 50% of those voting on the reality programming awards in the blue ribbon stage must be Academy members in the reality television industry. “Our thinking is that at least 50% of the people voting should really understand the craft of what goes into making a reality show,” maintains Murray.
While those changes are undoubtedly welcome news for reality programming professionals, change in another area – the number of reality programming categories – isn’t likely to occur right away, despite frequent complaints from many reality production execs that the categories, particularly the “reality program” category, lump disparate programs together under the heading. Last year’s nominees in the category, for example, included Undercover Boss, MythBusters, and the often-nominated Antiques Roadshow.
“The Television Academy is still very cautious about adding additional categories, so I don’t see that happening in the immediate future,” says Murray, with McKillop adding that the Academy is justified in guarding against “award inflation.”
“There’s been a steady continuum – from the beginning of this Academy to 2013 – of engagement with this kind of programming, and a sensitive recognition within the awards structure of it, as is reflected in the categories that we have,” says John Leverence, senior vice president of awards for the Television Academy. “I suspect that’d be a trend that would continue.”
But while he doesn’t think that will result in an immediate move to recognize reality sub-genres, Leverence says the creation of the peer group may lead to a wider range of nominees.
“When you have a reality programming peer group that now has its own identity and over 500 voters operating within it, you’re starting to get a more engaged and better informed group of people for this type of programming,” he says. “And the possibility of having a more eclectic and non-repetitive mix comes in.”
So while an Emmy win for “best docusoap” may not be on the horizon, both McKillop and Murray say it’s important for the reality TV industry in the U.S. to have its representatives in the Television Academy take part. Indeed, membership in the Reality Peer Group has been climbing steadily since its inception in August of 2012, growing from 186 at that point to 557 members at press time. The Documentary Peer Group, according to Birman, is also growing, “because now there isn’t so much confusion” over what shows fall under what discipline.
Shine America’s Gaha says he’s pleased to promote reality from within the Academy.
“When this genre first exploded about 10 years ago and I first came to the U.S., the perception was that you could pitch a show on a log line, put 10 cameras somewhere, and that was reality,” he says. “And with the maturation of the genre, that has changed immeasurably. We are storytellers, and there are highly skilled people who work in this industry, from producers and story editors, to editors and directors and cinematographers. It’s worth showcasing what those people can do and allowing people in the wider industry to see what goes into this process we call reality TV.”
Indeed, both Murray and McKillop see education as a priority for the peer group – educating other peer groups about just what reality production professionals do, and educating those both within the industry and outside of it about what’s new and innovative within the genre. “Some of these shows may not win Emmy Awards but we feel we should make our members aware of some of the interesting and innovative stuff that’s being done,” Murray says.
“The dream for Jon and I is to have a very proactive group,” sums up McKillop. “We have to be, since we represent such a large part of what the consumer is digesting on television.”
- Realscreen West will host a ‘Props Shop‘ session exploring how and why shows pick up kudos from peers tomorrow (June 5) at 9.15 a.m. PST
- This interview originally appeared in the May/June 2013 edition of realscreen magazine. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.