Miniseries and TV movies are now competing for the same award at the Emmys.… (Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles…)
Miniseries have had it good for some time because, when done right, they offer a unique TV experience: Big-name casts, often lush period sets and the time to flesh out the characters and story — showpieces that radiate a grand promise of what TV can strive to be. And they can cause Emmy voters to swoon.
Yet hardly anyone wants to make them anymore.
"They don't repeat well, and the money put into them doesn't match the return; it's just not a very good economic model," says Tim Brooks, former network executive for Lifetime, NBC and USA.
So when the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced in February that it would fold the miniseries and made-for-television movie categories together, network programmers were far from surprised.
"I didn't have much of a reaction," says Mark Stern, president of original content for Syfy and co-head of content for Universal Cable Productions. "It was never easy in terms of looking to garner awards for these long-form projects, and it just means now that it's going to be particularly competitive."
The change had been in the works since 2005, when the TV academy's "Rule 14" — in which consolidation of award categories can be considered if there are fewer than 14 submissions in any two-year period — was triggered. Miniseries submissions bobbed up and down for the next five years but never surpassed 14 again. In 2010, there were just five offerings for the category, resulting in only two nominations. It was time to act.
"In the Bible, there was the discussion about how many righteous men you need in Sodom and Gomorrah before you blow the place up," says the television academy's John Leverence, who oversees the awards. "It was like that."
So, the category got blown up and reconfigured. But programmers are less concerned about the miniseries diminishment than in trying to pair minis with the only other long-form show category.
"Movies and miniseries are apples and oranges, and the specific kind of storytelling for movies and miniseries is completely different," says Tanya Lopez, senior vice president of original movies for Lifetime, which makes approximately 24 TV movies each year. "They offer completely different viewing satisfactions."
Barbara Fisher, Lopez's counterpart at Hallmark, which made 26 TV movies last year, agrees. "The bigness and the grandeur of a miniseries needs to be celebrated, but the limits of a two-hour movie should be taken into consideration, and you can't do that now. TV movies stand no chance against the grandeur of the miniseries."
Less often discussed is the premium cable elephant in the room called HBO. The network has shut out every other channel since 2004 in the television movie category and has won six of the 11 miniseries prizes since 2000.
HBO declined an interview on the topic of the merge, but executives there can't be pleased about it either. The cable network's long-winning tradition in both categories means that even if it dominates this new one, it's still going to be bringing home one less prize — at least one less. When HBO is on a roll — as it was with "John Adams," which took home 13 Emmys in 2008 — it can garner a significant amount of airtime on the Emmy show, a fact that may not please the broadcast networks airing the event.
Leverence denies there's any anti-cable bias in the board of governors' decision-making: "The Emmys show an awful lot of love to HBO, and the idea that the academy is kicking sand in the face of somebody is not borne out by the overall statistics of how these [cable] companies do within the Emmy structure."
Surprisingly, the merge doesn't seem to have dampened interest in creating miniseries: Syfy will be airing its twist on Peter Pan, "Neverland," late this year, and Lifetime's Lopez says her network will venture into miniseries in the near future.
"In many ways, it's cyclical," she says about the passion for making minis. "Not long ago, everyone said dramas were obsolete — and look at the landscape today. I think it's going to shift."
This may mean that in the near future, the board of governors may have to once again invoke Rule 14 — to separate the categories. For now, minis and movies will have to live in the same cramped house.
"You keep your head up high and submit things because you think they deserve it," says Hallmark's Fisher. "None of us are in this business to get awards. It's more important that we please our audience than an Emmy committee. So, no, it's not a horrible travesty. It just makes our chances … pretty slim."