Endangered Species: What the Emmy Merge Means for the Miniseries Form

Endangered Species: The Emmy Merge and the Miniseries Form

February 25th, 2011

It is not particularly surprising to learn that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is merging the Outstanding Miniseries and Outstanding Made-for-Television Movie categories at this year’s Emmy Awards.

While I am sure that many will consider this part of a larger attack on cable’s dominance in both categories in light of ongoing negotiations with the networks, the concern here seems to be largely practical. There have not been five nominations in the Outstanding Miniseries category since 2004, and in the past two years only two miniseries warranted a nomination due to the complete lack of competition in the category. While the Made-for-TV Movie has been able to pull together 5-6 nominees each year during the same period, let’s not pretend that Why I Wore Lipstick to my Masectomy deserved to be nominated alongside Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. By merging the two categories into a six-nominee pack, you will solve both the concern over quantity in Miniseries and the (lesser) concern over quality in Made-for-TV Movie.

However, ignoring practicality for a moment, is this actually logical? On the one hand, I think that award show logic has to be concerned about issues of practicality, and streamlining these awards will in some ways appease the networks who worry about Cable’s dominant presence within the Emmy Awards broadcast. However, what does it mean for a Miniseries to compete against a Made-for-TV Movie? Does the longer format of a Miniseries give it a distinct advantage over its shorter counterparts? Or does the succinctness of a Made-for-TV Movie make it more likely to resonate with voters who likely don’t have time to spend five or six hours to spend watching a true long form narrative?

This is all pure speculation, but I think it’s especially important in a year where the Miniseries category would have actually been tremendously interesting for the first time in a while. Downtown Abbey and Mildred Pierce are both dramatic period pieces from PBS and HBO, who have been the lone nominees for the past two years, and the latter comes with the star power of Kate Winslet and director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There, Far From Heaven) to boot. Plus, we can’t forget Carlos, which made numerous critics year-end film lists in December but given its length has been more competitive as a television miniseries on the Sundance Channel. Throw in one of Starz’s historical miniseries (more likely Pillars of the Earth than Gods of the Arena, I think, based simply on Emmy voters’ reluctance to reward sex and gore in such vast quantity), and you might actually have four nominees which would provide legitimate competition.

However, the question becomes what happens when these projects merge with TV Movies; what would have happened last year, for example, if The Pacific had squared off against Temple Grandin? We’ve been given some sense of how this might play out, in that most of the guilds combine the two categories, and things have been pretty split: Temple Grandin picked up the DGA (oddly enough, given how visually stunning The Pacific was), while The Pacific won the PGA and WGA awards. To add a bit more intrigue to the proceedings, Carlos actually beat out both at the Golden Globe awards, which suggests that one particular form will not automatically overshadow the others.

All of this is focused on the horse race element of the Emmys, in terms of how nominees are decided and who eventually wins the awards. While this is something I am interested in following as an awards junkie, I have to wonder (more as a scholar) what it means to be judging miniseries and made-for-TV movies next to one another. They are very distinct forms, which are working towards very different aims, and I worry that the mashup will take away from some of that distinctiveness. Of course, the same concern exists within the comedy categories, which compare hour-long dramedies with half-hour multi-camera sitcoms, and the Golden Globes still has the most illogical mashup in its combination of Supporting performances from drama, comedy, and movie/miniseries.

However, none of those forms are in any sort of danger, having reached an acceptable point of co-existence (even if things were a bit hairy for the multi-camera sitcom there for a while). The Miniseries, meanwhile, has become an endangered species, and this moves seems to be the next step towards extinction. Even if the Miniseries is a dying form, to lump it in with an entirely different form will do nothing to change this fact; while there is a point at which we can accept that the format is dead, I think there are signs of life, and I sort of like holding onto the belief that it could some day experience a resurgence. While PBS will still import miniseries from the U.K. (where the form remains more common), and I don’t think HBO will abandon the form entirely, I do worry that the disappearance of this category might curtail any attempts at a revival, and I consider that a disappointment.

If not, of course, a surprise.

Cultural Observations

  • The real story here is actually a much more significant change. The Cinematography categories have shifted to reflect recent changes, shifting from “Half Hour” and “One Hour” to “Multi-Camera” and “Single-Camera.” Interesting that this will result in competition between single-camera comedies and dramas, creating a different sort of mashup – this is obviously a minor category that won’t play out on the broadcast, but the idea of 30 Rock vs. Breaking Bad is certainly a bit strange. And, as Jaime Weinman put it on Twitter, “now single-camera comedies may go from dominating one category to getting unfairly frozen out of another.” Touche, Jaime.
  • While I have yet to see Carlos or Mildred Pierce, right now I’m thinking that Downton Abbey has to be the favorite: Winslet seems a lock to move a Tony away from EGOT, but Downton is “classy” in a way that I think the Emmys will respond to, and Dame Maggie Smith is an absolute lock to pick up a Supporting Actress nomination (and likely win).
  • An alternate strategy the Emmys could have used was the idea of the “Super Emmy,” wherein the winners in the drama and comedy categories squared off against one another for an additional Emmy in the early 1970s. This would have allowed them to reward the most “Outstanding Miniseries,” acknowledging its formal distinctiveness, and then placing it in competition with the most “Outstanding Made-for-TV Movie.” It was a terrible idea for acting awards, where the comparison was truly apples and oranges, but I think it could work when dealing with projects rather than people, and with form rather than genre.
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2 Comments

Filed under Award Shows

2 responses to “Endangered Species: What the Emmy Merge Means for the Miniseries Form

  1. Peter P

    The cinematography awards were split between multi-camera and single camera from 2000 to 2007, so this is just changing it back. Ally McBeal was nominated twice and Everybody Hates Chris was nominated once in the single camera category, and I believe all the other nominations went to shows classified as dramas.

  2. John

    Why the hell did they change Cinematography back to Single-Camera and Multi-Camera? While there are still quite a few multi-camera series on the air, do we really need a category to honor the superior camerawork in “The Big Bang Theory” or “Hot in Cleveland?” If the photography is so outstanding, let them compete against single-camera shows. There’s just very little competition. “How I Met Your Mother” had won the Art Direction for a Multi-Camera Series award every year since its debut, but the category was strangely unrewarded at last year’s awards (despite there being nominees). The Oscars knew when to merge the aesthetic categories for Black and White and Color films. Get with it, Emmys!

    Myles, I hate the Super Emmy idea. I think the best option would be to have a Program of the Year category like the TCA does. This category would allow anything aired on TV within that season (series, miniseries, movie, informational, reality) to compete.

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