By Adam Spunberg

Whether people want to accept it or not, reality shows are as much a part of the television universe as sitcoms, scripted dramas, and late night comedy, if not more.  Cheaper to produce, networks such as MTV, VH1, and Bravo have made reality television the main course of their programming, and the numbers continue to support the wisdom of their decisions.  Perhaps some of these shows are train wrecks waiting to happen, but viewers delight in the pitfalls of their peers, just as they celebrate contest winners or the search for America’s best fill-in-the-blank.

Hosting these shows is more difficult than it looks, especially behind the scenes.  A successful host exhibits charm when needed, prevents the show from turning chaotic, becomes friendly with the cast while also maintaining its respect, and knows when not to make the show about him/her instead of the contestants.  Think of how Dodgers broadcasting legend, Vin Scully, famously stayed silent as Kirk Gibson trotted around the bases in the 1988 World Series; that restraint, along with the erudite commentary that followed, earned him enormous praise.  He let the moment play out, then shared some unforgettable words.  The challenge is similar for reality hosts (and really, seeking to emulate Scully is almost always a wise move.  If you can, then “the impossible has happened!”).

The Emmys added the Reality Host category in 2008 in response to the growth of reality programming.  As part of the splash, they had the reality hosts serve as the Emmys hosts, a decision ultimately met with a lukewarm response.  To have waited for 2008 was a bit tardy, but we should still condone their willingness to adhere to modern trends and act on it; some other awards shows are not nearly as flexible.

Jeff Probst of Survivor was the inaugural recipient, a fitting choice considering how he pioneered the reality revolution.  He then won it again in 2009.  The five candidates for 2010 were also nominated in 2009, except 2009 included Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio from Top Chef.  Who knows what culinary catastrophe made them the unfortunate victims of an Emmys downsizing.

The nominees:

The Emmys have not been afraid to award the same nominee year after year, so Jeff Probst has an excellent chance of winning yet again.  He always does a commendable job, mixing in a nice heterogeneousness of practical observation and emotional catalyst; for example, he often asks questions that stir the pot but also steers the dialogue away from too much melodrama.  Probst was a star long before his Emmy, but that he continues to guide Survivor competently is remarkable.  Show business is not supposed to be a permanent gig.

We also have to acknowledge the challenge of going to these remote islands, weathering many of the hardships that plague the show’s contestants while keeping everything in order.  Based on his respectability and everyday workmanship, consider him a slight favorite.

Tom Bergeron has developed a familiarity with American audiences, having displayed his grinning face on their tubes for many years.  Dancing With the Stars is immensely popular, which should bode well for his chances.  Dance requires flair, and Bergeron is no stranger to dressing things up with some extra panache.

That being said, I am not his biggest fan.  Probst, for instance, brings a certain genuineness to the role that Bergeron simply does not.  His jokes are clearly staged, he laughs in a fake way, he panders to the audience far too much.  First and foremost, he is a showman, and while that behavior might bring in good ratings, I would rather it be exhibited in Vegas than a quality TV program.  I hope he loses, but he is a strong contender.

My personal choice would be the illustrious Phil Keoghan from The Amazing Race.  Keoghan is the epitome of class, always treating the pairs of travelers with respect and stressing the cultural richness of each stop.  He offers as much enthusiasm for a country like Burkina Faso as he would for Italy or France, and he does so with a humble wordliness.  Imagine the arduousness of journeying from one international city to the next, prepping each leg on an instant’s notice without room for error.  We all focus on the travelers’ obstacles, but Keoghan suffers through many of the same ordeals.  He is unheralded.

He also just seems like an incredibly nice guy (which – if he isn’t – is a testament to his effectiveness as a host).  When you factor in how much the Emmys have loved The Amazing Race over the years, I see Keoghan as a dark horse candidate to take home the prize.

And then there’s Ryan Seacrest.  What to say about the guy?  He knows how to work a crowd, appeases his target audience, and appears to enjoy the glamour of his position without taking it for granted.  His odds depend on the direction the Emmys want to take this year; if it’s about appealing to Generation X and Y iTunes junkies, he has as strong a chance as anyone.  If quality and professionalism are more the focal point, then I expect he would fall below Keoghan or Probst.

I do not mean to criticize Seacrest too forcefully, because he is excellent at what he does.  It would just be improper to put him in the same league as some of the other contestants, at least in my opinion.  American Idol is also in a little slump (although still widely popular) after suffering through a down year.  That could hurt him as well.

Lastly, we have Heidi Klum from Project Runway, the only woman to make the grade this year (and she was pregnant! That has to count for something).  Project Runway is a well-regarded show and Klum is very likable.  Thousands of Americans hinge on her “in” or “out” declarations, which have become a marketable trademark for her and the network.  She handles the role professionally and gracefully.

The biggest knock against her would be the extent of her influence.  How much does she really bring to Project Runway, even if she does it well?  On Survivor, Probst is critical to the show’s development and Keoghan’s exertions are ever associated with The Amazing Race’s tone.  She would be fun to root for, and to have worked through pregnancy is astounding, but I don’t think she is quite as deserving as the aforementioned two.

The important thing to realize is that this particular award is still young, so we have little basis for making educated predictions.  Any one of the five could home with the prize, with a minor advantage to Jeff Probst to repeat again.

Additional Mention: Andy Cohen may not be an on-the-scene host, but his influence is everywhere on the Real Housewives shows.  Based on his weekly “aftershows” alone, he ought to get some recognition.  Also, if Tim Gunn could qualify for a host award, he would deserve some acclaim too.

Extra note: If you want to see a phenomenal host, rent the first season of The Mole and watch Anderson Cooper before he became a CNN celebrity.  He was superb.

Road to the Emmys Series

July 5: Nomination Preview Podcast – Lilit Marcus, Andrew Payne, Rebecca Rose, and Phil Wallace

July 8: Nomination Analysis Podcast – Rebecca Rose, Dantzler Smith, Phil Wallace, and Bryce Van Kooten

July 12: Outstanding Host: Reality Show or Reality Competition – Adam Spunberg

July 14: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie – Adam Spunberg

July 15: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie – Phil Wallace

July 19: Outstanding Actor in a Miniseries or Movie – Phil Wallace

July 21: Outstanding Actress in a Miniseries or Movie – Gene Williams

July 26: Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special – Savanna New

July 28: Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series – Dantzler Smith

August 2: Outstanding Reality Program – Gene Williams

August 4: Outstanding Reality Competition Program – Savanna New

August 7: Outstanding Made for TV Movie – Savanna New

August 8: Outstanding Miniseries – Adam Spunberg

August 9: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series – Colin Campbell

August 10: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series – Kit Bowen

August 11: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series – Rebecca Rose

August 12: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series – Andrew Payne

August 16: Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series – Phil Wallace

August 17: Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series – Steve Neumann

August 18: Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series – Andrew Payne

August 19: Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series – Bryce Van Kooten

August 23: Outstanding Comedy Series – Kit Bowen

August 25: Outstanding Drama Series – Adam Spunberg

August 29: 62nd Annual Prime Time Emmy Awards