Emmys: Inside the Minis/Movies (R)evolution

From history-making phenomena like 1977's 'Roots' to the category-defying (and sometimes logic-defying) hold of 'True Detective,' limited series — and TV movies — boast an intriguing shared legacy.

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Over the years, no television formats have experienced more of a roller-coaster ride -- in terms of their popularity with the public and their classifications at the Emmys -- than made-for-TV movies and miniseries.

In the mid-1950s, for the first time, a majority of American households owned a TV set, and Hollywood was forced to acknowledge that this smaller-screen nuisance wasn't going away anytime soon. Adopting the attitude, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em," film studios began to license their product to TV, and soon each of the three networks was offering a weekly [Insert day of the week here] at the Movies program. Before long, few desirable movies had not yet been shown -- which led TV execs to a bright idea: Why not make our own?

The first made-for-TV movie was NBC's orphans drama See How They Run (1964). Like many that would follow, it featured actors known for film work (John Forsythe, Jane Wyatt, George Kennedy) and attracted considerable viewership and ad buys, helping to convince network execs to shift their focus to the TV movie genre.

'Fargo,' 2014 (FX) Inspired by the Coen brothers’ acclaimed 1996 film, Noah Hawley’s (very) dark murder anthology won the miniseries prize in 2014 and returns this fall with a different cast and storyline.

Miniseries, meanwhile, largely were inspired by programming from across the pond. In the early 1970s, PBS began to import a handful of British series -- some of which featured only a few long episodes. American broadcast networks quickly saw potential in creating similar event programming and frequently drew from prestigious literary properties for projects like NBC's Lincoln (1974), from Carl Sandburg's biography; ABC's QB VII (1974), an adaptation of Leon Uris' novel of the same name; and the wildly popular Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), based on Irwin Shaw's novel.

While the Television Academy didn't create a TV movie category for years, members were compelled to create one for miniseries after the 1972 Emmys, at which British miniseries Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII -- both featured in PBS' Masterpiece Theatre's inaugural season -- claimed a host of top prizes. Less than two weeks later, the Academy announced the establishment of a "limited series" category (christened "miniseries" in 1986) with corresponding acting categories. Wrote the Los Angeles Times: "The Academy denied the rules change was made because of any embarrassment over the British sweep," but few believed that was true.

'Downton Abbey,' 2010 (PBS/ MASTERPIECE) Oscar winner Julian Fellowes’ upstairsdownstairs period piece, originally a one-off miniseries, attracted PBS’ biggest viewership and returned for six seasons as a drama series.

In 1976, Warner Bros. chairman Ted Ashley hired the producing team of David L. Wolper and Stan Margulies to create shortform programming for ABC. The first ended up being Roots, an adaptation of Alex Haley's gripping saga about American slavery, the rights to which they bought before the book was even finished. For just $6.5 million, they produced the 12-hour epic that aired on eight consecutive nights, a tactic that was intended to "burn it off" after the network grew concerned the content might cause controversy. Instead, viewers were hooked: The show attracted the largest audience in TV history up to that point, and each installment still holds a slot in Nielsen's top 100, including an unprecedented 51.1 share for the finale (still the third-highest-rated episode for any type of TV).

After that, the miniseries format exploded, with the networks recognizing their potential to be "event TV," especially when featuring big names in beautifully produced projects that tackled big social issues or "classy trash," to quote one exec, while remaining more or less family-friendly. Moreover, via repeat airings, domestic syndication and foreign sales, miniseries presented a huge financial upside as well.

'Hatfields & McCoys,' 2012 (HISTORY) The three-part Kevin Costner Western was History’s inaugural scripted drama. Its first installment was the most watched nonsports broadcast on ad-supported cable ever.

Among the noteworthy successors to Roots was ABC's own Roots: The Next Generation (1979), which, like its forerunner, won the Emmy; NBC's Holocaust (1978), which introduced the titular term into the public lexicon; NBC's Shogun (1981), adapted from James Clavell's book; PBS' Brideshead Revisited (1982), a lavish British-import inspired by Evelyn Waugh's novel; ABC's 18-hour The Winds of War (1983), which Herman Wouk adapted from his World War II novel and which the network spent $23 million promoting; and ABC's The Thorn Birds (1983), another Wolper-Margulies production, adapted from an Australian novel about the forbidden love between a woman and a priest. Birds cost $23 million to make but, thanks partly to an airing during Holy Week, became the second-highest-rated miniseries of all time.

'The Bible,' 2013 (HISTORY) Most miniseries have dealt with religion tangentially, but this one from Mark
Burnett tackled it head-on, from Genesis to Revelation, earning cable’s biggest numbers of the year.

In 1984, upstart cable network HBO got into the game with its first miniseries, The Far Pavilions. While cable -- and HBO, specifically -- would one day become the foremost producer of miniseries, at the time it nearly killed the format. Cable introduced dozens of new channels and series, fragmenting the TV audience, which grew less inclined to devote hours upon hours to miniseries. This prompted the broadcast networks to make miniseries ever more derivative, expensive and lengthy to try to stand out. Several failed spectacularly, including ABC's War and Remembrance (1988), a 30-hour sequel to The Winds of War. And apart from one notable exception -- CBS' Lonesome Dove (1989), an eight-hour adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that attracted the highest ratings for a miniseries in five years -- the format's future looked bleak.

Meanwhile, made-for-TV movies had more or less held steady. As corporate conglomerates purchased film studios and pressured them to make less artistic, more commercial movies, many movie stars did what was once unthinkable: dipped their toes into TV. Telefilms paid well, required only a brief time commitment and often resulted in Emmys, which might explain how, for instance, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Anthony Hopkins and Richard Dreyfuss all wound up in Victory at Entebbe! (1976). By 1980, there was no denying that TV movies merited an Emmy category of their own.

'American Horror Story,' 2011 (FX) Ryan Murphy’s addictive fright-fest marked a return to the anthology model with new installments each year boasting the same principal cast but different storylines.

By the 1990s, though, cable, video games and the Internet began to undermine the level of interest in TV, especially in TV movies and miniseries. In 1991, their Emmy categories, which each had five slots, were merged into one, "drama/comedy special and miniseries," with six slots total. The next year, the merger was undone, but the decline of the formats continued.

Increasingly passing for miniseries, and dominating at the Emmys, were programs considered to be more of a "continuing" series (i.e. the many iterations of Britain's Prime Suspect series starring Helen Mirren). Fewer actual one-off miniseries were being attempted, especially as reality TV was starting to offer networks coveted ratings at a fraction of the cost. Around 2000, the only network consistently attempting ambitious miniseries was HBO, and the only ones that permeated the zeitgeist were its Band of Brothers (2002) and Angels in America (2004). Thus, by 2011, it had become so hard to fill the miniseries Emmy category with worthy titles -- only two were nominated in 2009 and 2010 -- that, in 2011, it was once again combined with TV movies.

Ironically, it was right around this time that TV movies and miniseries surged back to life, largely because of edgy, critically acclaimed cable offerings. HBO's The Sopranos and FX's The Shield were among the first to emerge. Then, over the next three years, HBO released acclaimed TV movies starring Kate Winslet (2011's Mildred Pierce), Julianne Moore (2012's Game Change), Nicole Kidman (2012's Hemingway & Gellhorn), and Michael Douglas and Matt Damon (2013's Behind the Candelabra). Luther and Sherlock, British short-order series co-opted as American miniseries, developed cult-like followings. PBS' Downton Abbey (2011), which won the combined category, proved so popular, it was converted into a regular series. FX's American Horror Story (2012) spawned four incarnations, and History's Hatfields & McCoys (2012) and The Bible (2013) drew huge cable audiences in their respective years.

Consequently, in 2014, Emmy's TV movie and miniseries categories were split apart once again. But this time it looks like they've broken up for good. In 2015, the TV Academy changed the miniseries category back to the "limited series" category and tightened its rules: a limited series now is defined as a series that runs for more than one but no more than five installments (to distinguish it from a TV movie or regular series), collectively totaling more than 150 minutes (to distinguish it from a short-format series) and with no characters or storylines carrying over from previous seasons.

This way, shenanigans like those pulled last year by HBO's True Detective -- which submitted itself to the Emmys as a drama series (it still lost to Breaking Bad) -- can no longer happen. Not that talent or networks are running away from the TV movie or miniseries formats; rather, they just can't deny that much of the best work on TV is happening in one or the other.

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