By Savanna New

Reality television of the competition variety has come a long way since Survivor first appeared on the scene in 2000, captivating viewers across the United States with images of roasted rat dinners and the exposed butt cheeks of eventual winner Richard Hatch. Since then, we have seen competition-oriented reality programming — now a national addiction — expand to encompass nearly every avenue imaginable. Millions of Americans crowd around TV and computer screens each week to watch contestants outwit, outplay and outlast each other not only on deserted islands but on dance floors, in kitchens, behind microphones and at sewing machines. You name it, and there’s guaranteed to be a group of people fighting to be declared master of it, as well as legions of devoted fans clamoring for their favorites to win it all.

With such a large number of reality competition shows out there, there are guaranteed to be more misses than hits (I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and Paris Hilton’s My New BFF come to mind). Since the category of Outstanding Reality Competition Program was introduced to the Primetime Emmys in 2003, we have seen the same five or six nominees contend for the award year after year, making for a surprisingly and ironically dull contest amongst opponents whose bread and butter is the thrill of battle.

What makes such shows truly great and worthy of Emmy gold? The producers of CBS’s The Amazing Race appear to have concocted the perfect recipe, having claimed the prize seven out of seven possible times. The Amazing Race is the ultimate competition, the global scope of which is unmatched in this genre. It’s almost unfair for it to be judged alongside its peers, as cooking and singing contests don’t exactly compare to eleven teams of friends and family members trekking around the world and following clues that will eventually lead them to $1,000,000. In addition to its striking premise, The Amazing Race benefits from a creative team whose work is without parallel. Rather than simply serving as a backdrop, the cultures of each country visited are woven seamlessly into challenges, and every leg of this logistically difficult race always goes off without a hitch. Physically and emotionally intense, The Amazing Race is like no other reality show out there, and it is easy to understand why its viewership continues to increase after sixteen seasons.

Like The Amazing Race, Fox’s American Idol has received a nomination in this category every year since its inception but has never won, despite consistently boasting some of the highest ratings television has ever seen. Unfortunately, it appears that Idol‘s losing streak will continue, as its ninth season has generally been declared its worst. Frankly, I’m surprised it was nominated this year at all. Whether the decline in both quality and popularity can be attributed to a lackluster Top 12 or the loss of Paula Abdul as a judge is impossible to determine; perhaps the show has simply grown stale. With the departure of Simon Cowell and supposed return of producer Nigel Lythgoe, we can expect to see big changes to Idol in its tenth season (set to premiere January 12, 2011) which will lead either to glory and a long-desired Emmy or the show’s complete downfall.

Though I understand it has a huge fan base, like American Idol, ABC’s Dancing with the Stars is beginning to become somewhat tired and formulaic. This, despite producers’ attempts to keep things interesting by implementing such inventive changes as a balcony from which the contestants can view each other’s performances and – wait for it – theme nights. The appeal of watching a handful of B- and C-list celebrities as they try not to fall flat on their faces mid-fox trot or tango must be sizeable, however, as Dancing with the Stars continues to garner fantastic ratings season after season.

Project Runway (whose eighth season is currently airing on the Lifetime network) has been nominated for this award every year since 2005. Though lacking the epic nature of a show like The Amazing Race, the critically and popularly-acclaimed Project Runway has remained fabulous, fresh and fashion-forward  since its debut. While the concept is simple – a group of designers competing to create the best clothes in hopes of winning $100,000 to start a line – Project Runway never fails to keep things entertaining by introducing unexpected twists and turns.  Some of Season 7’s more memorable challenges include fashioning party dresses out of burlap sacks and creating looks using materials found at a hardware store. Personally, I think it’s time for Project Runway to finally claim victory and be named Outstanding Reality Competition Program, but with a dynastic contender like The Amazing Race in its midst, it hardly seems feasible.

Top Chef

This year’s nomination for Outstanding Reality Competition Program marks Top Chef’s fourth in a row.  Currently in its seventh season on Bravo, Top Chef is more successful than ever, continuing to spin off more spin-offs than you can shake a spatula at, from a computer game and an online culinary school to a brand of Schwan’s TV dinners and a kids’ version of the show called Top Chef Junior (set to air sometime in the near future). This past season of Top Chef was one of the best in recent memory, with the rivalry between Voltaggio brothers Bryan and Michael heating up the kitchen and fan favorite Kevin Gillespie’s beard earning its own Facebook page. But, like Project Runway, Top Chef has little chance of disrupting The Amazing Race’s reign.

 

What’s missing? Survivor, which many thought had run its course, had one of its best seasons yet this year. The Heroes vs. Villains concept, which featured twenty former Survivor contestants known for either their virtuous style of play or their deceptive scheming, was undeniably brilliant. I even found myself sucked into the mania despite having not watched Survivor in ages.  One might also argue for The Celebrity Apprentice, which was exceptionally fun to watch this season thanks to the presence of such characters as Cyndi Lauper, Sharon Osbourne and Bret Michaels in the boardroom.

With none of the other nominees even coming close to touching its level of excitement, intrigue and adventure, The Amazing Race seems to have this one in the bag, yet again. Eventually, some new and extraordinary show will come along and usurp its seemingly fixed place as Outstanding Reality Competition Program…but not this year.

Savanna New is an associate editor at Picktainment. Email her at savanna@picktainment.com.

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 – Rebecca Rose

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