Reality TV Emmy nods defy the surprise factor lure of the shows themselves

Contestants must prepare a pig for roasting on an early season of "The Amazing Race," a frequent Emmy winner.
(CBS Entertainment)

Reality television is on virtually every network, available in myriad formats. But anyone looking at the reality Emmy categories – currently reality competition, and reality show structured and unstructured – might think it is merely a niche format that has a small but persistent programming toehold.

Outstanding reality competition is a category established in 2003, yet three shows (“Amazing Race,” “Project Runway” and “Dancing With the Stars” have double-digit nominations – and “Race” has won 10 times). Outstanding reality show, divided up now into structured and unstructured, is somewhat more diverse – but many of the same series earn nominations every year.

So what does it mean when, as seems all but inevitable, many of the same series nab more nominations come July 14? Are the reality categories canny or calcified? Turns out, it’s probably a little of both because the sheer ubiquity of the reality genre may be at least partially to blame for leading to nearly identical nomination lineups every year.

The No. 1 factor has to be zeitgeist meets core values.

Mark Burnett, reality producer


“We get so much sample material to look at – an episode or a couple of acts – and we have to make a judgment call,” says television academy voter Rasha Drachkovitch, president of 44 Blue Productions, which oversees “Wahlburgers” (two nominations). “There’s literally hundreds of choices.”

“All those pages of shows [on the submission list],” says Marsha Bemko, executive producer for “Antiques Roadshow” (13 nominations), as she sighs. “I’m sure it helps some that our show starts with the letter ‘A.’ All of it has an impact on us getting a nomination every year.”

Ask a number of reality show producers what puts their show over the top some years, and they generally have no idea. What was it about “Top Chef” in 2010 or “The Voice” in 2013 and 2015 that made them better than otherwise perennial champ “Amazing Race”? Only theories seem to exist.

“It takes about three seasons before a show finds its audience, or the audience finds it,” says Clay Newbill, one of “Shark Tank’s” (two wins) executive producers and show runner. “The first year we were nominated was the first year that ‘Shark Tank’ became a show where people realized it had nothing to do with sharks and was about business.”


“Sometimes there’s a new show people are real excited about,” says Elise Doganieri, co-creator of “Race.” “When we lost, it reignited a fire in us to say, ‘What are we going to do to get that trophy back where it belongs?’”

There’s also a belief that Emmy voters respond to shows that portray unmanipulated reality. “It’s the secret sauce we try to have for all our shows,” says Denise Contis, executive vice president of development and production at Discovery Channel, whose “Deadliest Catch” has three show Emmys. “High-quality storytelling and commitment to authentically capturing a world that people have not seen in the past.”

Veteran reality producer Mark Burnett, currently an executive producer with “The Voice” (two show wins), says it’s also about hitting the audience’s sweet spot. “The No. 1 factor has to be zeitgeist meets core values,” he says. “Yes, it can be something that elevates but also has to resonate with the core values of the American experience.”

Additionally, many nominations likely come down to brand awareness. At this point voters “know” ahead of time that “Race” is a quality product. They “know” that “Roadshow” is worthy, as is PBS generally. And they’ve read about “Voice’s” buzz-worthy headlines all season. Then, as “Voice” host and producer Carson Daly notes, “It’s great once you’re in [the regular lineup] because then you have a very good chance of staying in it.”


One thing’s for sure, though: The shows perennially on that list are in it to win it – the pull of being a winner, it seems, is hard to resist. “It never gets old,” says Burnett. “When you’ve grown up around the business and you get to stand on that stage and hold that golden statue – it’s a huge experience.”