The Emmys‘ Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category featured many of the expected contenders. HBO’s Game Change and Hemingway And Gellhorn made the cut along with History Channel’s highly rated mini The Hatfields & McCoys, which made a big splash with 16 nominations, and BBC’s Luther and PBS’ Sherlock: A Scandal In Belgravia adding serious gravitas — if not shows that had many viewers compared to the marquee categories.

The most interesting nomination came for FX’s American Horror Storywhich managed to tie Mad Men for the most overall nominations this year with 17. This show, which offers a different storyline each season with cast members taking on different roles, is a somewhat controversial entry. It is designed as a continuing “series” that could go on for many seasons. In fact, it had to get special treatment from the Academy board in order to be even eligible as a miniseries, where it obviously had a much easier time getting nominated than it would have in the Best Drama Series category where many think this weekly series belongs. Executive producer Ryan Murphy brought it to the Academy and asked that it be considered as a mini rather than regular series — he’s no dummy. At the Primetime Awards Committee meeting the issue was brought up and someone asked if the show initially had a pilot — it did. The committee deadlocked 19-19 on whether to recommend the Board of Governors approve Murphy’s request. The board eventually caved, and Murphy got his way, resulting in the truly impressive Emmy haul this morning. FX sent DVD screeners to the Academy and one of the episodes was clearly labeled “Pilot”. What movie or miniseries has ever had a pilot? Obviously the Academy is twisting the definition of what makes a movie or mini in order to give this category new blood that doesn’t come from HBO or niche networks and cable.

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The most curious nomination in Movies/Minis however comes in Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie. Ashley Judd was nominated for ABC’s flop series Missingwhich to my knowledge was not initially designed to be or ever labeled as a miniseries. Certainly the network’s intention was to keep it going as a series, except ratings and poor reviews dictated otherwise. Yet here is Judd  nominated against Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, and Emma Thompson for genuine movies or minis. The fifth nominee, American Horror Story’s Connie Britton, similarly benefited from the Academy’s liberal interpretation of eligibility here.  But Judd’s eye-popping nomination could really set a precedent. Can you imagine actors in future short-run failed network series suddenly defining their work as a miniseries to get an Emmy nomination? It’s sad to see this happening in the movie and mini category and may just be a reflection of the diminishing form itself.

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The one area where the Emmys have an opportunity to offer fresh faces, big names and something a little different each year is definitely in the Movie/Miniseries categories. It’s the one place Emmys can actually rival the Oscars in terms of prestige projects, but it remains an endangered species at the Academy due to the Big Four networks’ basic snub of the form in recent years, leaving the contest open mostly to HBO, Showtime, PBS and the BBC. So you have to give ABC credit for finding a way into the arena with Missing. Obviously they were able to prove something to the Academy that wasn’t obvious to TV viewers or even critics who may have been under the impression that Missing was just another drama series.

In what could be just the beginning of a retreat from the category on the primetime telecast, the Academy announced that the Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress in a Movie or Mini categories will be jettisoned beginning in 2013, an indication to me that we are on a slippery slope here. This means some of this year’s name nominees like Jessica Lange and Ed Harris would not be considered separately next year meaning they will have to , unfairly, compete with leads in their programs. What’s next to go? When I was on the Academy’s Board of Governors there was a real attempt to move the entire movie/mini categories off to the much-less-visible Creative Arts awards show or even spin it off into its own show and try to sell it to a cable network. That thankfully didn’t happen as it would deprive the Primetime Emmys of a long-held tradtion of honoring this kind of prestige show in a proper way. But after combining the Movie and Miniseries category last year and now tinkering with the very definition of what makes a movie or miniseries live up to their name, the Academy is cheapening this once proud category. Last year’s winner Downton Abbey morphed into a full-fledged drama series sometime after its first “season” and the Academy clearly determined it would need to be considered as such in Season 2. It was, and today it was nominated for 16 Emmys as a drama series where it rightfully belongs. The Academy should continue to carefully try to separate what might be defined as a series or limited series from the kind of one-time events that should normally define the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category.

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