What do Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Jack Lemmon, Halle Berry, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Geoffrey Rush, Holly Hunter, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Joanne Woodward, Laurence Olivier and Vanessa Redgrave (among many others) all have in common besides their Oscars? They have also each won an Emmy in the category of Leading Performance in a Movie or Mini-Series. Given this distinguished star power, and the prestige factor of the projects they choose to do for television, then why does it increasingly feel like the Movie and Mini-Series categories are suddenly the bastard child of the Emmy’s primetime telecast? The reason is that, in recent years, the four broadcast networks have basically abandoned the formats that once shone so brightly on their air. They also broadcast the Emmys and foot the bill. So they’ve been grumbling that the Movie and Mini-Series categories are one long commercial for HBO and that the Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences should downsize them.
It was seen as more or less inevitable for a category that has averaged fewer than 10 Emmy submissions annually since 2005 – declining to 7 in 2009 and a scant 5 last year – and generated a paltry two nominations each of the past two years. So now the miniseries submissions are being consolidated into a single Made-For-TV Movie/Miniseries grouping obliged beginning this year to compete with single-night originals (typically two hours or thereabouts). There is a measure of irony that this is the strongest year for big-budget miniseries submissions since the category’s fate has hung in the balance. Four Mini-Series — HBO’s Mildred Pierce, PBS Masterpiece Theatre’s Downton Abbey, ReelzChannel’s The Kennedys, and Starz’s Pillars of the Earth — are competing head-to-head with the HBO docudramas Cinema Verite and Too Big to Fail.
John Leverence, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ SVP of awards, asserts that years of thin submissions finally prompted the TV Academy’s Board of Governors to bring to a vote whether to keep top Mini-series as its own stand-alone designation. When assessing categories to excise, the TV Academy board abides by a so-called Rule of 14, wherein if a category spawns 14 or fewer entries for two consecutive years, a category revision or consolidation is addressed. “The miniseries category hadn’t had more than 14 submissions since 2004,” Leverence told Deadline contributor Ray Richmond, “which means it’s had fewer than five nominees each succeeding year. So in fact, the rules would have allowed for a consolidation as long as five years ago. But the board opted to take a more patient and measured approach to this. It was reviewed annually, and only this year was action taken. It’s just something that our board felt needed to be done to keep the category balance fair and equitable.”
HBO has won the Mini-Series award 7 times since 1998 and triumphed in the Movie category an astounding 17 of the last 19 years, including the last 6 years running. When HBO loses it’s usually to a BBC production airing on PBS. The lavish epic miniseries of yore that used to routinely pop up on ABC, NBC,and CBS like Roots, Holocaust, The Winds of War, and War And Remembrance have gone the way of the dinosaur, done in by dwindling attention spans, altered viewing habits, and the erosion of network audiences – not to mention radically slashed programming budgets. ABC was the last broadcast net to have a contender in the movie race (2008’s A Raisin In The Sun) and also the last net to actually win with Tuesdays With Morrie back in 2000. CBS was the last to have a mini in contention with Elvis in 2005 but it succumbed to PBS’ The Lost Prince.
HBO’s dominance is such that last year it swept all 8 categories in the Movies/Mini-Series sector. Todd Haynes, who wrote and directed the acclaimed five-part remake of Mildred Pierce, disagrees with the notion that the miniseries form itself has grown antiquated. “The miniseries is changing, but I think still as popular as ever as a form,” Haynes told Deadline contributor Ray Richmond. “Just look at HBO, which is looking less like a place for fictional drama and more of a place for historical drama and real-life stories. They didn’t quite throw around the money on this that they had in the past for a World War II epic, but Mildred Pierce also wasn’t cheap. It shows HBO’s commitment to the form is still very much there. And I would posit that the proliferation of viewing options has only made people hungrier to watch multi-part events.”
Masterpiece Theatre executive producer Rebecca Eaton understands that “these projects simply aren’t the moneymakers for the commercial networks that they have been in the past, and the kind of period drama that’s often the subject matter is the most expensive kind to do. These are very pricey things to do. But we nonetheless remain fully committed to making them. They are our food and drink, after all,” she tells Deadline contributor Ray Richmond. “It’s what we do, what we’re known and respected for. Emmys mean a great deal to us and are a great cause for celebration because we don’t have the money to campaign for them,” she says. “When a Masterpiece project wins, it’s strictly on its merits. That makes for a sweeter win.”
A big argument against the merger of the categories has been that enormously expensive and ambitious mini-series such as past winners The Pacific, John Adams, and Band Of Brothers would dwarf any mere two-hour movie forced to compete against them. But it always seemed ill-advised to me that the Academy would even entertain a discussion to relegate what are arguably their most prestigious awards to the back of the room. The TV Academy vehemently denies that network pressure was a factor in the downgrade. While I served on the Board Of Governors representing writers [from 2005 to 2009] a vote was taken in 2007 to do the exact same thing and it passed. But Academy leaders, apparently fearing too much change, forced a second vote at the next meeting and the idea was tabled.
Then there was the disastrous attempt to “time shift” most of the movie-mini categories by pre-taping them and then truncating the speeches for air. That was met with a resounding thud in the industry, particularly by writers and directors, and the idea was quickly dropped by producer Don Mischer and the Academy. There was also an Academy task force that looked into all of these thorny issues and seriously discussed moving the entire Movie-Mini awards into the overcrowded Creative Arts Emmys. There was even talk about creating a separate show entirely devoted to the awarding of Movie and Mini Emmys for broadcast on HBO or another cable channel.
Whether any of this is still on the table is a big question. But in announcing their new 8-year Emmy broadcast deal with the nets, the TV Academy said the organization and the broadcast network retain the right each year of the deal to “review” the awards categories and their presentation on the show.