Emmys: Who Will Benefit Most From the New "Limited Series" Category?

The TV Academy once again has changed its rules (goodbye, "minis," hello, "limited series") in order to better organize a slew of worthy contenders. THR's awards analyst dissects the tricky evolution of the race.
Michele K. Short/FX
'American Horror Story: Freak Show'

A version of this story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

In last year's Emmys race, HBO's True Detective, an eight-episode show that was never going to have a second season with the same characters or storyline, was categorized as a drama series, while FX's Fargo, a 10-episode show that was never going to have a second season with the same characters or storyline, was placed in the miniseries category. This was possible because of the TV Academy's "dual qualification" provision, which meant that if a show fit the description of multiple categories, its network could petition to be considered in one or the other. That was just fine with those shows' respective networks: HBO wanted its new hit to take on the most prestigious competition, while FX wanted its first-ever program Emmy, and both got just that.

Strategically positioning a limited series for a win hardly is new. PBS' Prime Suspect, which returned over and over with Helen Mirren playing the same character, was categorized as a miniseries because it offered only a few (long) episodes. Showtime's Sleeper Cell's first two seasons received different designations — the first as a miniseries, the second as a drama — ostensibly because its creators didn't plan on expanding it beyond one season (ditto for PBS/Masterpiece's Downton Abbey). The final seasons of Showtime's The Big C and HBO's Treme also were designated as miniseries because those seasons were four and five episodes, respectively, shy of the six needed to qualify as a series. And FX's Emmy-winning anthology American Horror Story always has been classified as a miniseries — despite featuring mostly the same cast in as many as 12 episodes, albeit with different characters and storylines — even though all the great anthology series from TV's early days competed as drama series. (In fairness, there was no category for miniseries until 1973.)

This year, the TV Academy has replaced the term "miniseries" with "limited series," defined as one that runs for more than one but no more than five installments (to distinguish it from regular series and TV movies, which once again have their own category), collectively totaling more than 150 minutes (to distinguish it from short-format series) and with no characters or storylines carrying over from previous seasons. This means that short-order series that have been passing as miniseries (and landing noms), like the U.K.'s Luther and Sherlock, must now compete as drama series, while the second season of True Detective (which premieres too late for this year's Emmys), unlike the first, cannot compete as a drama series.

What about cases like the last season of The Big C and Treme, which under the new rules would fail to meet the episode-count requirement to be a series, but which also carry over characters from previous seasons, as limited series are not allowed to do? John Leverence, the TV Academy's senior vp awards, tells THR, "To exclude something of that quality simply because it kind of fell between the rigorous definitions of eligibility — we just wouldn't want to do that," adding that in the "hierarchy of rules" the episode count trumps the character-carryover clause, so a show like that would be deemed a limited series. "We are not going to disqualify it."

It also means that more limited series will have a chance at recognition than in recent years, including HBO's Olive Kitteridge, Starz's The Missing, SundanceTV's The Honorable Woman, PBS' Wolf Hall, ABC's American Crime — and yes, American Horror Story: Freak Show.

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