By Tom O’Brien
The Emmy for the Outstanding Competition category has proven to contain some of the most varied nominees of any Emmy category. There are singing competitions, craft competitions, and fashion competitions, as well as contests of wit and of strength. The big news in this year’s race is that CBS’ “The Amazing Race,” which has won this category a record 10 times, did not air any episodes in the eligibility period and is out, which leaves open at least one slot for a newcomer.
As we come down to the end of the voting period, let’s count down how I see this hot race shaping up at this moment…
10. “Dancing With The Stars” (ABC)
“Dancing With the Stars” has earned 11 consecutive nominations in this category before missing in 2017, and once you miss a series nomination, it’s extremely difficult to get back in. Host Tom Bergeron earned nine consecutive nominations as the show’s host, winning the Emmy in 2012, but the buzz had left the show until this season when producers invited Donald Trump’s first press secretary, Sean Spicer, to become a contestant, causing controversy among anti-Trump viewers. For the first time in years, “Dancing” became a hot water-cooler topic again, but is it enough to return the series to Emmy nomination glory?
9. “Making It” (NBC)
“Parks and Recreation” co-stars Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, who were nominated last year as Outstanding Competition Hosts for their work on this crafts competition series, are back, guiding contestants as they create crafts in such varied fields as woodworking, fashion design, murals, and interior design. Offerman, who when not performing is a master woodworker himself, takes on the Tim Gunn mentor role, while Poehler, despite her overalls, serves as a caring adviser for the contestants’ efforts. Affection for the hosts, plus a premise that sets it apart from all of its rivals, may be enough to get “Making It” into the top five for a nomination.
8. “Project Runway” (Bravo)
Once an Emmy contender with 14 consecutive nominations in this category, “Project Runway” was at one time an Emmy Award staple. Last year, however, the series was unceremoniously bumped for a nomination when Emmy-winning original hosts Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn left the show and were replaced by American model Karlie Kloss and Season 4 winner Christian Siriano respectively. This is not to say that Kloss and Siriano aren’t good — Siriano is a particular hoot at times — but without Heidi & Tim and their catchphrases, it’s just not the same show that was such a fan favorite. It’s going to be an uphill battle to get back to the top five.
7. “American Ninja Warrior” (NBC)
This sports competition show has had four consecutive nominations as Outstanding Competition Program, but, given the competition, “American Ninja Warrior” may be on shaky ground for a fifth. The premise focuses on American men and women as they race against the clock trying to conquer an almost-impossibly challenging obstacle course. There’s a kind of malicious fun to see these musclebound hunks fall and go kerplop in the water, and it’s thrilling to see an unlikely contestant actually make it through to the top. “American Ninja Warrior” could still easily get into the top five for a nomination, but much depends on the strength and appeal of two newcomers, which could either crash the top five or crash and burn.
6. “The Masked Singer” (FOX)
True, “The Masked Singer” is not exactly a newcomer — it was eligible last year but fell short of getting a nomination. But the novelty singing competition is a huge ratings winner for FOX, and some of those viewers may indeed be Emmy voters. In “The Masked Singer,” the costumes are the star (sorry, Nick Cannon), and a number of singing celebrities don those bizarre outfits that cover their faces to obscure their identities. A panel of B-level celebrities (such as Robin Thicke, Jenny McCarthy, and Ken Jeong) then try to guess the singers’ identities from a series of clues provided to them. It’s almost a goof on singing competition shows, but it remains to be seen if Emmy voters view it as a delight or a sacrilege.
5. “Nailed It!” (Netflix)
This Netflix bake-off competition series was a surprise nominee last year, and there’s no reason to believe that it might not make the cut again. The challenge here is one with which many of us can empathize — three amateur bakers with limited baking skills are asked to recreate several elaborate confections found on the internet. Host Nicole Byer is very much in the bakers’ faces which often prompts some unexpected drama and only makes “Nailed It!” even more entertaining. It also provides fans who have already seen every episode of “The Great British Bake Off,” which may include more Emmy voters than we think, their baking fix, and that may be just enough for a nomination.
4. “Top Chef” (Bravo)
“Top Chef” was the first show ever to snatch the crown in this category from “The Amazing Race” in a shocker of an upset in 2010. The cooking competition has maintained a consistent quality throughout its 17 seasons, perhaps because judge Tom Colicchio has been there since Day 1, and Padma Lakshmi has hosted since Season 2. The show’s producers have been quite smart in tweaking the series now and then to keep it fresh but not so drastically as to alienate the show’s loyal viewers. Aging series sometimes fall out of the top five for nomination (see “Survivor”), and it’s extremely difficult for them to return. I suspect, however, that “Top Chef” is several seasons away from that prospect and will show up once again on nomination day.
3. “Making The Cut” (Amazon Prime)
It’s always risky to predict an Emmy nomination for a first-season show, but “Making the Cut” contains two factors that will certainly command Emmy’s attention — Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, who won the Outstanding Competition Host Emmy for “Project Runway” in 2013. Amazon budgeted the series to take Klum & Gunn to New York, Paris, Tokyo, and other fashion capitals, resulting in a widely diverse collection of contestants. Add to that Amazon’s ability to make the show’s designs available to the public, and you have a unique package that I suspect will appeal to voting members of the Academy.
2. “The Voice” (NBC)
Seasons 17 & 18 marked, for the first time, the absence of original coach Adam Levine from the judges’ chairs. Not only was his presence missed, but it put a stop to the wonderful bromantic canoodling between Adam and Blake Shelton. With the shenanigans by the coaches suddenly taking a back seat, the silver lining in all of this is a stronger emphasis on the contestants, which is where the focus should be. “The Voice” was won this category four times before, and it’s not unprecedented for a series to win again after a loss (“The Amazing Race” did it the year after losing to “Top Chef.”). It just has to get past the category’s current champ, which is easier said than done.
1. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (VH1)
The two-time defending champion in this category shows no sign of slowing down as the buzz continues to grow for this drag competition series, as well as for its many offshoots. For a series that did not receive a major Emmy nomination until Season 8 (a rarity), “Drag Race” has earned 34 Emmy nominations and has chalked up 13 wins to date. The embrace of the series and its contestants by audiences around the world has been remarkable, and the quality of the contestants and the judges seem to grow each year. Without a credible challenger to take the throne, look for “Drag Race” in Competition Program and RuPaul in Competition Host to bring home the gold again.
What’s your choice for the best competition program of the year? And what film do you think will be nominated for the Emmy? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Also be sure to check out our analysis of the Emmy races for Drama Series, Comedy Series, Limited Series, Television Movie & Variety Talk Series as we prepare to deliver our final nomination predictions for this year’s Emmys.
You can follow Tom and hear more of his thoughts on the Emmys and TV on Twitter at @thomaseobrien