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Cynopsis Media Presents: Primetime Emmy Awards – Before the Ballot: Outstanding Documentary and Nonfiction Emmys
By Laura Brounstein 

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, June 12 2013, and this is the second in a series predicting the nominees for this year’s primetime Emmy Awards, which will be announced on July 18. Today’s category? Outstanding Documentary and Nonfiction Emmys.


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“The most confusing categories in the world,” says Tom Forman, CEO of RelativityReal, the company that produces un-scripted shows like MTV’s Catfish and Lifetime’s Coming Home, when he describes the Nonfiction and Documentary Emmy genres. “I don’t even think the producers know what they mean.”

Forman’s not alone. Experts from all areas of the entertainment industry are fuzzy on which shows actually fall into the Nonfiction field as opposed to reality – and how it’s possible to judge the shows against one another, since their subject matter ranges so widely. “Non-fiction programming spans such an incredible spectrum that it’s hard to make apple-to-apples comparisons,” explains Lydia Tenaglia, Executive Producer and Co-Founder of Zero Point Zero Production, Inc, which is responsible for CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

The main awards in the world of Nonfiction and Documentary are Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special and Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. To further muddle matters, only Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking is a jury prize with one winner. The other two are known as “area awards,” which means, according to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, they are not judged against each other. Instead, any nominated show that gets a 90% approval rating from the documentary peer committee “wins” an Emmy. Therefore, more than one Emmy can be given in each category.

Competition is as fierce in this area as any other field. That’s partly because Documentary and Nonfiction has taken off. “It’s thriving more than ever,” says Maureen Ryan, the TV critic for AOL/Huffington Post who also serves on the board of the prestigious Peabody Awards. “In the last few years, the number of submissions for the Peabodys, [which can be a good indicator for the Emmys,] in this division has exploded. The two big guns are always PBS and HBO. Now Showtime is getting into the game and encouragingly, so are National Geographic, A&E, CNN, CNBC and History.”

Paul Coyne, Executive Producer of Beyond Scared Straight on A&E, attributes some of this growth to the rise of reality television. “When I was going to film school in the 80s, it was rare to find popular acceptance of a documentary. People recognize that format a lot more easily now – and reality television has brought that about. That’s because when reality first because fashionable in 2000/2001, scripted TV had become too predictable. Reality TV came along and said, ‘We can still surprise you, because you don’t know how real people are going to react to a situation.'”

Documentary and Nonfiction Series

So what will actually receive nods? Ryan says that in many ways, these categories are no different from any others: “Name recognition is a big deal. For example, Anthony Bourdain has a little bit of an edge going in, because people are already aware of him and his work. So his show will get some attention no matter what, even though Bourdain himself can be a bit prickly.” 

This is the first year for his new show, which airs on CNN; the show’s previous incarnations – No Reservations and A Cook’s Tour – aired on the Travel Channel. But Tenaglia says the move to CNN upped the show’s game considerably. “It was always a travel show with a very strong food component, but producing the show for CNN allows us to do a deeper dive. This year we went to Libya, Myanmar and the Congo, places with very complex geopolitical and social happenings. I think it’s an incredible evolution. The show has really matured.”

Ryan thinks that PBS will still dominate the series category, however. “PBS is one of the major brand leaders; just look at Nova, which is so great.” According to PBS, two different Nova series were submitted for nomination, ScienceNOW and Australia’s First 4 Billion Years.ScienceNOW has a bit of a higher profile, so if one falls out, it will probably be Australia. Shakespeare Uncovered, another PBS series, is a really interesting attempt to get Shakespeare on television and was pretty good, for the most part. I can’t imagine that American Experience wouldn’t get a nomination, but sometimes American Experience can be really formulaic, so American Experience: The Abolitionists might not make it through.”

Forman, who was an award-winning investigative journalist and documentarian before starting up RelativityReal, says Vice on HBO is another likely nominee. “Vice is just a really good ride. It’s making documentary filmmaking relevant to a new audience who probably thinks these types of shows are awfully boring. I came out of the news magazine world, so I have a real appreciation for the way those guys have taken the stodgiest of formats and made it young and passionate by embracing first-person storytelling. Other than that, I think Bourdain will get nominated, and so will Beyond Scared Straight. Because it’s on A&E, it has a broader audience, so voters will be aware of it. But then, I think everyone says, ‘I’ll feel smart if I vote for something on PBS. So which show sounds the smartest?'”

Beth Hoppe, Chief Programming Executive and General Manager for General Audience Programming at PBS, is just fine with that reputation. “PBS is about the smartest television on television. On Emmy night, we’re kind of the nerds in the room, but we don’t mind.”

Ryan says that the incredible popularity of Downton Abbey is changing that perception of PBS. “Downton Abbey is such a hot ticket, that it makes PBS as a whole seem cooler. But that’s because Downton is very popular and highbrow. Other networks that are more commercially- oriented might be hurt by their hit shows. Certainly, during the height of Jersey Shore, MTV’s other offerings suffered in terms of getting the attention of people who give awards.”

Lori York, who runs the NY alternative department for ICM, disagrees with that assessment. She says that the success of scripted shows like The Hatfields & McCoys and The Vikings on The History Channel may break up the HBO/PBS juggernaut. “People are expanding the way they think. When networks go into areas they hadn’t before and have ratings success with shows that feel like they could have been on premium cable, they’ll be looked at differently for awards. When Hatfields & McCoys kills it and then wins an Emmy, that’s pretty exciting. It widens the field. History also did something risky with The Men Who Built America, by adding some scripting to a documentary show. I think it should be recognized,” says York, who represents Patrick Reams, the series director.

History’s Dirk Hoogstra, EVP Development & Programming, would love to see that, but at the end of the day, he says, “Our main goal is ratings. If our viewers are happy, I couldn’t be happier. But it is great when you win.”

Discovery’s EVP, Production and Development, Nancy Daniels, feels the same way. “First and foremost, we need to service the viewers. We put together shows that we think are going to connect with the audience and that we can be proud of from a storytelling perspective. Getting an Emmy is gravy on top of that. When we created North America, which is big and beautiful, we thought, ‘How can we surprise and engage our viewers? Where can we go next?'”

Predictions for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction series:
Nova ScienceNOW
Shakespeare Uncovered
North America
The Men Who Built America
Beyond Scared Straight

Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown.

Documentary and Nonfiction Specials

This field runs the gamut from HBO’s Ethel and Beyonce- Life is But a Dream to Discovery’s All the President’s Men Revisited. The property with the widest range of opinions? Beyonce. “If the Beyonce thing is nominated, I’m leaving television,” declares Forman, only somewhat facetiously. “It was a commercial! Super-entertaining, but a very different product from the guys who rolled up their sleeves and dug through documents, congressional testimony, and did interviews to try to nail down what happened for HBO’s Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden. They’re not in the same universe!”

Ryan agrees that Manhunt is a likely nominee. “HBO is going to have a very strong year in this category. One gimme is Crossfire Hurricane, which combines Martin Scorsese with The Rolling Stones. That’s Emmy bait in the extreme… If PBS is going to get in there, I think it would be for The Dust Bowl. How can you go wrong with Ken Burns [the writer and director]? The only sure things are the Rolling Stones project and The Dust Bowl: and that’s probably the only time you’ll ever hear those two things in the same sentence.

“Then you’ve got the Bush documentary 41,” she continues.I also think Showtime’s The World According to Dick Cheney has a good chance of being nominated. He’s endlessly fascinating to a whole swath of America, whether they love him or hate him. The Beyonce special also looks good because people like her, so they’ll want to show that by supporting her special.”

York falls into that category. “I’m a Beyonce fan, so I loved getting a glimpse into her life. I approached it as a TV viewer though, not as a documentarian. There are certainly people who are much more involved in that side of the business that who thought it was a piece of crap, but I loved watching it.”

A relative newcomer to the field is the multi-platform premium cable channel Epix. Since their programming is viewable both on television and alternative platforms like X-Box consoles, their Chief of Staff, Nora Ryan, says they have the freedom to explore niche topics, because, “if there’s a fan base or interest group out there for something, we know we can find it. A good example of this is Lunarcy!, which is a really fun and quirky documentary about fans who are crazed about everything related to the moon. Being able to produce shows like this is why we feel we’re in a golden age of programming.”

Predictions for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special:
The Dust Bowl 
Beyonce-Life is But a Dream
Crossfire Hurricane
The Dust Bowl

The World According to Dick Cheney



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Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking

Not all projects submitted for consideration for nomination in this category are actually accepted by the Academy. Ten projects were put forward this year but typically, the Academy rejects some of those for not meeting the requirements they’ve laid out. “Programs for this category must push toward profound social change and impact,” which isn’t a consideration in the specials and series categories, explains Dan Birman, who represents Documentary Programming on the Board of Governors for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which awards the Emmys. “We created this as a special, juried award by filmmakers. We’re looking at programs that push the envelope on the documentary form for television.”

The one show on which there’s widespread agreement that a nomination is in the bag is Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, a documentary about sexual abuse in the Catholic church which aired on HBO last fall. Nancy Abraham, the SVP of original programming at HBO, says the network submits only one project each year for this award and this year, Mea Maxima Culpa was deemed to be the most appropriate for the category.

“I’d be really surprised if PBS’ Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and Mea Maxima Culpa didn’t both get nominations,” says Ryan. “They’re both major league documentaries made by people who really know what they’re doing. Nova gets nominations every year, too,” she adds, so Nova: Earth from Space also seems likely.

Predictions for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking:
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide Nova: Earth from Space

All of these awards will be presented on September 15th at the Creative Arts Emmys, not at the Primetime Emmys themselves, which is held on September 22nd on CBS.

Laura Brounstein

Roberta Caploe: Editorial Director
Denise O’Connor: Group Publisher, Cynopsis Media
Diane K Schwartz: Senior Vice President, Media Communications Group

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