How the Emmys define reality TV

In the Television Academy’s 70-page rules and procedures document defines reality TV shows and nonfiction programming, and explains the difference between them. The definitions are remarkably simple, at least for the three major reality TV categories. Here’s how the Academy defines them, starting on page 57:

  • Structured reality program: “programs that contain consistent story elements that mostly adhere to a recurring structured template”
  • Unstructured reality program: “programs that contain story elements driven by the actions of characters and lacking a consistent structured template”
  • Reality competition program: “any program with a competition element that gives a prize or title, including game shows”

Notice how none of them actually require reality programs to be nonfiction. However, earlier in the document, on pages 53 and 54, the Academy defines the two nonfiction categories as including nonfiction content:

  • Documentary or nonfiction special: “in-depth and investigational programs primarily comprised of documentary or produced nonfiction content; programs with a unified story and overall show arc; programs which are substantively told with documentary elements or produced nonfiction content.”
  • Documentary or nonfiction series: “Documentary series and miniseries, including anthology documentary series; in-depth and investigational programs primarily comprised of documentary or produced nonfiction content; series with a unified story and overall show arc; series which are substantively told with documentary elements or produced nonfiction content”

The rules note that “[a] series with a continuing cast of characters, excluding experts or hosts, is considered a docu- soap and must enter the Unstructured Reality category. If the series is the result of an ongoing documentary process, and not the product of reality elements, the program may submit a waiver to be reviewed by the [Peer Group Executive Committee].”

What are “reality elements”? And how does that differ from “produced nonfiction content”? It doesn’t say.

But the two nonfiction categories do define “acceptable” “devices”:

“…programs using such devices are subject to review at the discretion of the Peer Group Executive Committee:

- Recreations, including the use of performers or animation, if such recreations are fact- based and used for illustration purposes.

- A set-up environment or event within a documentary/nonfiction program if the purpose of environment or event is to disseminate factual information without reality elements.

Documentary/Nonfiction Specials area excludes all Reality and Reality-Competition programs.”

There’s that “reality elements” phrase again, though we now see that it’s the opposite of “ongoing documentary process.”

Ultimately, these offer some guidance, but there are still very blurry lines between them.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.