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Where the race gets real

Comedy and drama might still be the most glamorous Emmy categories, but the race for unscripted programming has more twists and turns. With “Top Chef” toppling seven-time reality-competition champ “Amazing Race” in 2010 and last year’s reality program winner, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” lacking enough qualifying episodes for submission, both contests are heating up. Here’s a look at a few of the major reality and reality-competition program contenders that are likely to be among this year’s Emmy nominees.

REALITY COMPETITION

“AMERICAN IDOL,” Fox: Twelve crooning contestants compete for a recording contract in this 10-year-old British import.

Why it still matters: Creator Simon Fuller says the show’s ability to reflect current pop culture and musical tastes keeps it relevant for viewers. “It is sincere and respectful of the viewer, with full transparency and no tricks or gimmicks,” he says. “We celebrate the fundamental notion of fulfilling dreams and promote the ‘anything is possible’ attitude that America stands for.”

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Keeping it fresh: Two new faces on the judges’ panel — Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler — breathed new life into this season, but Fuller says it wasn’t easy figuring out how to replace Simon Cowell. “We knew it would be a mistake to replace Simon with someone similar, so we used the opportunity to give the show a whole new personality and spirit of optimism and fun.”

Host: Producer extraordinaire Ryan Seacrest brings an “American Bandstand"-like charm and enthusiasm to the stage.

Emmy history: It has been nominated for outstanding reality-competition program every year since 2003, but has never won the top prize. It does, however, have six Emmys for behind-the-scenes achievement, such as directing and editing, plus three nominations for Seacrest.

Emmy chances: It’s important to remember that it’s an honor simply to be nominated, though the new “fun” “Idol” could go the distance this time.

“THE AMAZING RACE,” CBS: Eleven teams find clues that take them across continents in a race to finish first and win $1 million.

Why it still matters: After 10 years and 18 cycles, the show still manages to earn respectable ratings from legions of fans, which producer Bertram van Munster says is because of its wide appeal. “Every week it’s a completely different show. It’s a different country, different weather … ,” he says. “We shoot 12 episodes in three weeks, while we’re driving 40,000 miles or more and schlepping almost 100 people around the world. Logistically, it has always been a phenomenal feat.”

Keeping it fresh: While Van Munster says that bringing fan favorites back has given the format a little twist in the past, he still has a few tricks up his sleeve. “I have some plans that, unfortunately, I can’t reveal to you yet,” he says.

Host: Phil Keoghan, who was no stranger to adventure as a TV host in his native New Zealand, serves as a friendly through-line for competitors and viewers alike.

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Emmy history: Its seven-year winning streak ended when “Top Chef” cooked up its first win last year. Keoghan also has two noms.

Emmy chances: A nomination is assured, but last year’s upset might indicate that the TV academy is turning its attention to different fare.

“PROJECT RUNWAY,” Lifetime: Aspiring fashion designers strive to show their style by designing a new look each week, with the hopes of winning $100,000 to start their own fashion line.

Why it still matters: The show continues to be the jewel in Lifetime’s schedule, but its success always hinges on the contestants, says host-judge-executive producer Heidi Klum. “It’s all about those designers, and if they’re great, then it’s a great season,” she says. “When you meet people in a casting, you never know what you’re going to get. We don’t really know, do they really make those clothes or did a friend make them?”

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Keeping it fresh: While Klum says having another all-star show to accompany Season 9 will be fun, the rigors of devising increasingly difficult challenges is tough. “It is. I’m not kidding. We sit around this gigantic desk and ideas are flying across the table, and sometimes something sparks off of someone and we take it to the next level. One of my favorite challenges [came from an idea] that I had in the shower. I have all my good ideas in the shower.”

Host: Klum’s supermodel status gives competitors access to a real-world expert.

Emmy history: Klum has earned three nominations for her hosting duties, and the show itself has 15 additional noms. Its sole prime-time Emmy was in 2009 for editing.

Emmy chances: “Runway” has been nominated for six consecutive years, which means it will take a very strong upstart to knock it off its platforms.

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“DANCING WITH THE STARS,” ABC: Celebrities train with professional dancers to show their moves and burnish their public profiles.

Why it still matters: A strong cast made the show’s 12th cycle one of its highest-rated seasons to date. “We [want] to make everything feel special and make it feel like a real spectacular that harkens back to the golden years of TV, but also drawing the best out of modern TV,” says producer Conrad Green.

Keeping it fresh: Green says that the ratings dip in 2009 gave the producers a wake-up call, which led to the format changes first seen in Season 10. “We decided to relaunch the show completely, and I think it’s borne fruit. We focused on casting, and we focused on storytelling, and we focused on production of the live numbers. We might look at changing the set next season, but we’re constantly upping the game, not going backwards,” he says.

Host: TV veteran Tom Bergeron serves as an emcee in the most pleasant and classic sense, he keeps things loose and lively, teasing and joking with the judges.

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Emmy history: Since 2006, it has waltzed away with seven Emmys for everything from hairstyling to costumes, and Bergeron has been nominated three years running.

Emmy chances: The show’s high-profile season definitely will result in a nomination, but whether the nom will turn into gold is less clear.

REALITY PROGRAM

INTERVENTION,” A&E: Shot documentary-style, this series follows addicts whose families stage interventions in the hopes of saving their lives.

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Why it still matters: “The topic is rich because there are profound themes that are relatable to everyone,” says producer Dan Partland. “People are interested in watching those conflicts play out to get their own brain around how to deal with similar themes in their own lives.”

Keeping it fresh: As long as the focus remains on storytelling, Partland says, the show’s existing format provides the right structure. “A lot of times people ask about the tension between needing to make it a good story and needing to make it honest and accurate, and we find no such tension,” he says with a laugh.

Host: The only recurring on-air personalities are the three therapists who help the families stage the interventions.

Emmy history: It took home the Emmy for outstanding reality program in 2009 and won a second statuette in 2010 for picture editing.

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Emmy chances: After “Undercover Boss” and “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” edged out “Intervention” for a nom last year, it could have a tough time breaking back into this shifting category.

“DEADLIEST CATCH,” Discovery Channel: Film crews follow a half-dozen boats that troll the waters off Alaska for king crab and demonstrate how it can be one of the most dangerous professions around.

Why it still matters: This year, the series will voyage into untested waters when it competes in the reality program category for the first time. “We’re excited about taking a shot at the entire academy as opposed to a juried award,” says producer Thom Beers. “These are some of the best producers in the world. You’ve got to boil down 400 hours of material for a 44-minute TV program. The amount of work and effort it takes even to load the boat up — there is a quarter-mile of cable on every one of those boats — it’s astounding.”

Keeping it fresh: After a season that focused on the death of Capt. Phil Harris as well as the unresolved disappearance of another boat captain, Beers says the drama surrounding the show’s fishermen maintains the momentum. “You never know what’s going to come out of those pots; you never know what’s going to come out of someone’s mouth. These are all iconic characters now,” he says.

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Host: “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe narrates but never appears onscreen.

Emmy history: The show has been nominated five years running in the nonfiction series category.

Emmy chances: A recent plug from Tom Hanks on an episode from the final season of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” could be more valuable than any “for your consideration” ad. “It buoyed my spirits,” Beers says happily.

“DIRTY JOBS,” Discovery Channel: Producer and host Mike Rowe rolls up his sleeves to try his hand at some of the dirtiest blue-collar jobs America has to offer.

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Why it still matters: It all comes down to the man in front of the camera, according to producer Craig Piligian: “It’s an Everyman show. Mike does all the jobs that are the jobs that keep America working. He’s worked over 300 jobs.”

Keeping it fresh: Piligian says it’s a challenge to up the dirty ante season to season, but he’s confident that the show is nowhere near running out of material. “There’s still a lot of jobs out there that make sense for us. There are some jobs internationally that we haven’t even touched on,” he says.

Host: Fan favorite Rowe is the heart and soul of the show, and “Dirty Jobs” couldn’t exist without him.

Emmy history: Five Emmy noms in four years but no statuettes yet.

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Emmy chances: Rowe’s profile transcends the series, thanks to commercials and voice-overs, which should help keep the show top-of-mind when it comes to nominations.

“ANTIQUES ROADSHOW,” PBS: Everyday people get a chance to find out if the dusty objects from the attic have more than sentimental value.

Why it still matters: The grandfather of the current crop of reality programs, which has been on the air since 1997, has stuck to its core public-television purpose: appraising antiques. “We’re learning great things about our great country as we watch. Most of the objects we see are American,” say producer Marsha Bemko.

Keeping it fresh: Although Bemko says that they’re always looking to augment the format with new segments, whatever changes she makes need to be subtle. “We want to make sure viewers come back to the folksy ‘Roadshow’ that they know and love.”

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Host: Though many of the appraisers pop up in different cities, host Mark L. Walberg is the only on-air constant episode to episode.

Emmy history: The show has earned a reality program Emmy nom for six years running (and one each for nonfiction program and nonfiction series before that) but has never received the trophy.

Emmy chances: Despite the competition’s bells and whistles — not to mention enviable budgets —"Roadshow” could still earn a little love from the TV academy.

calendar@latimes.com


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