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Emmy Predictions: Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special — One of the Year’s Tightest Races

Can HBO keep its win streak going? Marquee documentaries from FX and Apple TV+ look to end the network's three-year reign.

tina turner documentary hbo

Tina Turner and The Ikettes in 1973

Photo by Rhonda Graam. Courtesy of HBO

Last Year’s Winner: “The Apollo”
Still Eligible: No.
Hot Streak: After Netflix took home back-to-back trophies in 2016 (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”) and 2017 (“13th”), HBO has rattled off three consecutive wins in the Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special category: “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” (2018), “Leaving Neverland” (2019), and “The Apollo” (2020). HBO remains the most-awarded network in the category’s 23-year-history, with 11 total wins.
Fun Fact: This year, 78 documentary or nonfiction specials made the Emmy ballot, falling just three submissions shy of qualifying for an additional nomination. Due to the sliding scale the Emmys instituted last year, categories with 20-80 submissions will nominate five projects, while categories with 81-160 submissions will nominate six projects. Had a few networks known an extra nomination was that close, perhaps they would have scrounged up three more documentaries for the ballot.
Notable Ineligible Series: “Hemingway” (the three-episode PBS documentary is running in the Documentary Series category); “My Octopus Teacher,” “Collective,” “Time,” “Crip Camp,” and “The Mole Agent” (all of which are ineligible for the Emmys after pursuing Oscars earlier this year)

At the bottom of this page are IndieWire Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special. This article will be updated throughout the season, along with all our predictions, so make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest news from the 2021 race. Voting for the 2021 Emmys was held from Thursday, June 17 through Monday, June 28 (with polls closing at 10 p.m. PT). Emmy nominations were announced Tuesday, July 13. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out Saturday, September 11 and Sunday, September 12. The 73rd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place Sunday, September 19. CBS is broadcasting the ceremony.

The State of the Race

With a ballot about as big as it could get (without adding a sixth nominee), the documentary field is rife with competition. A few docs and nonfiction specials have managed to build strong word of mouth, focusing on topical issues, famous faces, or both. Two of those have been frontrunners even before the nominations were announced, but that doesn’t mean the winner is all locked up.

“Tina” (HBO) and “Framing Britney Spears” (FX) carry plenty of reasons to consider them favorites. HBO has a strong track record in the category, and its music docs and celebrity profiles — including “The Apollo,” “Jane Fonda in Five Acts,” “Spielberg,” and “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” — have done exceedingly well with voters in recent years. FX, meanwhile, has seen its “The New York Times Presents” series make some noise with various entries, but none more so than “Framing Britney Spears.” The pop icon’s ongoing fight to end her father’s conservatorship makes raising the doc’s profile all the more critical, and Emmy voters aren’t ones to shy away from an important cause.

HBO has another music doc in contention, though. “The Bee Gees: How to Mend a Broken Heart” beat out a tough field with an absorbing feature about the ’70s era band. “Tina” likely has a bit more awareness and slightly stronger reviews, making it a safer bet among the HBO docs, but both will have to take down Netflix’s entry, “The Social Dilemma.” Unsettling and widely relevant, director Jeff Orlowski’s doc delves into a collective addiction to social media as well as the innumerable issues tied to its growing influence. If that message strikes a chord with voters, this could be the year’s dark horse doc.

That still leaves the heavily heralded Apple TV+ doc, “Boys State,” which goes inside an annual program designed for Texas high school seniors to build their own state government. It could also pull off the win if the TV Academy proves as enamored as many critics, but as of now, “Framing Britney Spears” appears out in front (thanks to its topical, must-see subject matter) with “Tina” right there, trying to keep HBO’s three-year win streak going.

Power Rankings:

  1. “Framing Britney Spears” (FX)
  2. “Tina” (HBO)
  3. “Boys State” (Apple TV+)
  4. “The Social Dilemma” (Netflix)
  5. “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (HBO)

Will Win: “Framing Britney Spears”
Could Win: “Tina” or “Boys State”
Should Win: “Boys State”

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