The Board of Governors of the Television Academy voted to split three more fields heading into this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards. That pushed the number of Emmy categories to a record 106. Yet we’ve never had so many shows that don’t seem to fit in any of them. The problem impacts mainly anthology-style dramas, which straddle the worlds of regular series and miniseries, and the proverbial “dramedies,” which blur the lines between comedy and drama. The issue came to the forefront with the debate surrounding HBO’s decision to enter the eight-episode True Detective as a drama, Showtime switching Shameless from drama to comedy series after three seasons and Netflix entering Orange Is the New Black as a comedy after submitting it as a drama for the Golden Globes.
“Life was easier when we had Gunsmoke and I Love Lucy,” quipped John Leverence, the TV Academy’s senior VP of awards. At the heart of the problem is the issue of “dual eligibility” programs that qualify for two categories under current Emmy rules. Shows such as HBO’s True Detective and FX’s American Horror Story have the characteristics of a drama—with continuous storylines, returning writing-producing teams and “Created By” credits. On the other hand, they each feature a single plot that is resolved within the same season, which is a signature trait of a miniseries.
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Once the TV Academy establishes that a program is eligible for two categories, it defers to the producers to choose which race to enter. AHS opted to go as a miniseries, despite having a semi-regular cast that has performed in multiple installments. HBO went the drama series route with Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective before it had been formally renewed and was certain to have a new cast and characters for season two. Meanwhile, PBS’ Downton Abbey submitted its first season as a miniseries before switching to the drama category a year later, despite already having been renewed when its freshman season competed as a mini.
All appear within their rights per TV Academy guidelines. Gamesmanship no doubt played a role in some submission decisions, though convictions were involved, too.
“This project was pitched to us, it was produced by us and marketed by us as a series,” HBO’s Michael Lombardo said about the decision to enter True Detective as a drama. “Nic never thought of this as a miniseries, and we always treated him as a creator of a series.”
It is interesting how perception changes. AHS raised eyebrows when it chose to compete as a miniseries in 2012. Gradually, the decision was accepted and seems to have become the norm, so much that when True Detective opted to go the other way, the move was perceived as a shocker. “It’s a strange thing; I was surprised (HBO) did it,” Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner said at the time.
Many have pointed out the competitive advantage AHS has enjoyed by entering the less-crowded longform field, topping the list of most-nominated programs for the past two years. But John Landgraf, CEO of FX, which airs the series, argues that short-run shows such as True Detective have an unfair advantage by attracting A-list talent like Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. “It’s unfair for HBO to get actors that you can’t normally get to do a series (but) who would do a close-ended show,” he says.
Both sides seem to have a point, which means there probably won’t be a right or wrong course for non-traditional dramas such as AHS and True Detective to pursue, unless the TV Academy steps in with stricter category guidelines, something many have asked for. Landgraf proposed that “the definition should be: A miniseries has a story that ends; a series has a story that continues on.”
Addressing the debate whether Orange Is the New Black and Shameless belong in the comedy or drama category, OITNB creator Jenji Kohan lamented, “I just wish there was an hourlong category and a half-hour category. I wish everyone wasn’t so focused on category.”
The TV Academy’s current stance is that “the rules that are on the books seem to be sufficient to carry through categorization,” according to Leverence.
But with the proliferation of event and genre-bending shows that will continue to compound the problem and raise the level of frustration among creators and TV executives, that might have to change.