Emmy Watch: Longform had a good year

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Every year, pundits perform last rites for the miniseries and the made-for-TV movie. Anachronisms from a bygone era, they say. Not deserving of separate categories at the Primetime Emmy telecast, some argue.

But you won't hear that this year, at least not here. Because while there aren't as many longform programs compared with a few years ago, the ones that do get made play more like big-screen epics than small-screen afterthoughts.

Thank HBO, in part. The pay cabler remains as committed to the genre as ever. At this year's 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards, HBO's longform arsenal is led by the seven-part, $100 million-plus "John Adams" miniseries, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. The adaptation of David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning book is expected to top the nominations list and could threaten the Emmy record of 11 wins hauled in by HBO's "Angels in America" in 2004.

HBO also has its usual handful of contenders in the made-for-TV movie category, which the network has won 12 of the past 14 years. This year's list includes the 2000 election saga "Recount," Bob Balaban's "Bernard and Doris," Kenneth Branagh's "As You Like It," Vanessa Redgrave's "The Fever" and the nuclear tragedy "Pu-239."

But it would be inaccurate to presume HBO has the telepic category in the bag, given the towering presence of "A Raisin in the Sun," ABC's adaptation of playwright Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 stage classic. It generated 12.7 million viewers when it aired on Feb. 25.

"This film showed courage on the part of both ABC and Sony Pictures TV," says Neil Meron, who served as executive producer on "Raisin" in tandem with partner Craig Zadan. "ABC turned over three hours of primetime to a 1959 drama with an all-black cast. And Sony showed how much it still values being in the made-for-TV movies business."

Indeed, Sony -- whose acclaimed, two-night AMC Western saga "Broken Trail" earned the Emmy trophy for top miniseries in 2007 -- remains the leading provider of longform programming to both cable and broadcast. Its roster includes not only "Raisin," but also TNT's miniseries "The Company" and CBS' miniseries "Comanche Moon."

Some believe that Sony's commitment to longform is tied to being out in front of the growing influence of DVR use. The theory is that people don't have the patience to watch a two-hour film in one sitting or a miniseries over several nights, but a DVR brings time-shifting leisure into the equation.

But Helen Verno, Sony TV's executive vp movies and miniseries, says there is no great mystery to the studio's love of longform.

"We wouldn't do these things if they didn't make financial sense," Verno says. "The truth is that after some years of struggle, made-for-TV movies and miniseries are on the rise again. And to have been involved in a project like ABC's 'A Raisin in the Sun' was incredibly special. It was a blessed experience, particularly being able to work with Sean."

"Sean" would be Sean Combs, aka Diddy, who served as an executive producer on the film while also starring as Walter Lee Younger, the role made famous on the big screen by Sidney Poitier in the 1961 version.

"It was a thrilling experience to be a part of this," Combs says. "It was one of those projects that made everybody proud."

Those connected to "John Adams" had similar feelings, reports Kirk Ellis, the writer who had the daunting task of adapting the McCullough book for the small screen. "It took up five and a half years of my life," Ellis says. "But I have to say, David could not have been more helpful and gracious. It was amazing to see it all come to life."

While projects like these speak to the genre's quality over the past year, Lifetime's and the Hallmark Channel's dedication to longform underscores its ongoing appeal.

"We're really working to become the HBO for women (when it comes to) movies in terms of quality," notes Susanne Daniels, Lifetime's president of entertainment. "We're putting our brand identification into these."

Not too shabby for a genre supposedly on the endangered species list.

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