Emmys 2011: Did Merging Minis and Movies Into One Category Help or Hurt?

Courtesy of Masterpiece/PBS
"Downtown Abbey"

Despite the move to create a more robust field, HBO still dominates a genre in flux.

When the topic of HBO's stake in the newly combined made-for-TV-movies/miniseries category arose at the network's July 28 TCA presentation, you would have expected The Suits to be flush with excitement.

The cabler dominates the six-member category with three entrants including front-runner Mildred Pierce, which earned 21 nominations, the most for any program.

Instead, programming chief Michael Lombardo grumbled over the merging of the two categories, a decision made last year by the academy essentially to prevent one network (read: HBO) from dominating the genre again after it scored gold both for its multipart The Pacific and original film Temple Grandin.

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"They are two distinct genres," said Lombardo, who lamented that the network wasn't "involved in the conversation" to combine the categories. Added HBO co-president Richard Plepler: "It's disappointing. … It prevents some of the writers and producers and directors from being recognized."

Wait, what?

If there's anything to be taken from this, it's that the academy simply can't do anything to please the masses. This is especially true in managing the dearth of original movies and miniseries cropping up on the modern TV landscape.

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After an embarrassingly small ballot of two contenders for last year's miniseries award (Pacific and PBS' Return to Cranford), academy chair John Shaffner and senior vp awards John Leverence said it was tough-love time. How could the academy protect the integrity of a dying genre?

Its only real option, beyond killing both categories altogether, was to combine minis contenders with movies. This, they said, would level the playing field. "We went into this whole thing with eyes wide open," says Shaffner of the grousing that followed the announcement in February.

But with HBO's continuing domination -- along with the four-part Pierce, it has the original movies Cinema Verite and Too Big to Fail competing -- it appears the merging has done little beyond shortening the ballot.

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Sure, Starz is enjoying its first Emmy entrant -- the historical-fantasy epic The Pillars of the Earth, adapted from Ken Follett's novel -- but it still would have been a contender had minis remained their own category.

PBS' superb miniseries Downton Abbey is also in the mix, along with the season's biggest shocker, the much-maligned ReelzChannel effort The Kennedys, whose inclusion is equal parts rubbernecking and love for its superb -- and nominated -- lead actors, Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper.

Love it or hate it, minis and movies make up a combo platter for this year's Emmys. But many are still wondering: How in the world can you measure such disparate works of art against one another?

In the nominations phase, says Leverence, movies and minis were selected based purely on "the top six vote-getters." But in choosing a winner, a more equitable approach is being asked of academy members.

"We are accommodating the apples-and-oranges factor in this round by asking voters to rate each program on a scale of one to five, instead of comparing them against each other as they do in the acting and series races," says Leverence. "In essence, the movie or mini that garners the highest individual rating is the winner. I think people want to be fair, and this helps that process."

For Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Downton Abbey (and all Masterpiece minis and movies for the past 25 years), the process might not be perfect, but it doesn't erase the recognition.

"The merging has been coming for a long time because there aren't as many longform series being made," she says. "It definitely makes it a faster track, but it would also make it a sweeter win."

Eaton's sentiments are shared -- and amplified -- by fellow dark-horse contender Rola Bauer, executive producer of Pillars. "We are so f--ing excited!" she said by phone from the Budapest set of the Pillars sequel World Without End.

"Honestly, this is still a huge deal for us. There is a still a global audience for longform fiction, and our inclusion in this category is proof of this fact," Bauer said. "Everyone around here is pretty buzzed about it."

It's hard to imagine HBO brass will still be irked about the minis/movies combo category come Emmy night, when Pierce will likely follow in the footsteps of the network's 2010 winners, Pacific and Grandin.

But Lombardo was right when he said miniseries and movies "are two distinct genres." And hopefully voters can be open-minded, as they have been when voting on the comedy series (the one-hour Glee is up against the half-hour Modern Family?) and comedy actress (Edie Falco is "funny"?) categories.

When it comes to feting artists who work in a medium changing faster than Netflix's membership fees, change isn't just a good thing -- it's crucial.