Emmys: Rules Change Sparks Miniseries Uproar

Mildred Pierce Kate Winslet
Andrew Schwartz/HBO

For the first time, miniseries and TV movies will go head to head. The academy says it levels the playing field, but producers aren't convinced.

If there's a game-changer in this year's Emmy race, it's the decision to combine the TV movies category with miniseries, a field long dominated by HBO and, to a lesser extent, PBS.

For Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS' Masterpiece Theatre, the move is long overdue. "It was getting a little odd to have it be a two-horse race," says Eaton, who jokes that PBS has won 51 Emmys on a campaign budget of "$29.99."

Better-funded HBO has won seven Emmys for miniseries, including last year's The Pacific. From the networks' point of view, paying millions to broadcast awards in TV movie and miniseries catagories that often amounted to an ad for HBO was an increasingly losing proposition.

Still, opinions are decidedly mixed about how the new category will play out.

For starters, with movies and miniseries duking it out for one shiny doll, there's less Emmy gold to go around, even though the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has upped the total noms from five to six. "It makes it a much faster track, a larger pack, and that makes it a tougher win for anyone," says Eaton, "and arguably tougher for a PBS show than a commercial show." Hopefuls for the combo-category Emmy include HBO's Mildred Pierce, Too Big to Fail, Cinema Verite and The Sunset Limited; Starz' The Pillars of the Earth; PBS' Sherlock: A Study in Pink, Wallander II, Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey; and BBC America's Luther.

"I think it's a step backward for ATAS to combine minis with TV movies," complains a successful Emmy campaigner. "It's mixing apples and oranges." For Eaton, pitting the six-hour Downton Abbey against the five-hour Mildred Pierce is a case of "apples and apples" because both are lengthy period dramas.

Critics also point to the fact the new rules create "a little David and Goliath action," as Eaton puts it.

Adds Leo Trombetta, Emmy-winning editor of Temple Grandin, which swept last year's TV movie categories, "To equate a miniseries like The Pacific or John Adams -- where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on multiple episodes utilizing numerous directors, writers and editors -- with a single movie whose budget is often less than the cost of one episode of said miniseries is extremely unbalanced."

The change didn't happen overnight. After Showtime and others shifted from miniseries to series and the number of miniseries contenders fell below the 14-entrant minimum academy rules recommend, ATAS waited seven years to give new miniseries makers a chance to get into the race. "I said, 'No, let's wait and see what happens,' " says John Leverence, the academy's senior vp awards. "I think it speaks to the board's interest in being flexible."

"The academy struggled to keep it separate," says Eaton. "They've always been very fair because they live on a political griddle, a hot seat in Hollywood. But if there aren't the numbers, there aren't the numbers." For the past two years, there have been only two miniseries noms, one each from HBO and PBS.

Still, Emmy observers wonder how voters will compare formats with such different dramatic shapes. "The miniseries and the feature are quite different creatures," says Mildred co-writer Jon Raymond, who also co-wrote the 2008 Michelle Williams feature film Wendy and Lucy. "The miniseries, to my mind, is a lot closer to the novel, whereas the feature is much more like a short story."

Counters Leverence: "Movies and minis may have quantitative differences, but Emmys are won on the basis of quality. A two-hour movie or a 10-part mini has qualitative elements of characterization, production values, plot coherence, etc., which Emmy judges are asked to evaluate in the context of each.  Qualitatively, that's a level playing field.  Yes, the mini has more latitude to strut its stuff, but the movie has less airtime to fill with quality strutting."

Leverence adds that ATAS also has tried to make the competition fairer through a new system that directs voters to rate each movie or miniseries on an absolute scale, not against one another. "The board set up the judging on a noncompetitive ratings-score system (1-5, 5 being best), rather than a preferential ranking system (give the nominee you liked best a 1, second-best a 2, etc., for all noms), so each nomination could be considered on its own terms."

Eaton is philosophical about the new combo category, where PBS movies compete not only against HBO but also PBS miniseries. "Yeah, they're apples and oranges, but at least they're my apples and oranges," she says. "But if we win, it'll make it an even sweeter win."

But not everyone is so forgiving of the new rules.

"What's next," the Emmy campaigner says, "combining comedy and drama series, reality and nonfiction?  If the four-wheel Emmy telecast networks have pressured ATAS in this direction, it's also pathetic. Betcha it returns to two categories in the near future."

Whether it's a matter of apples and oranges or David vs. Goliath, Mildred writer Raymond has a typically sardonic take on the whole affair: "I'm not counting any chickens, or apples or oranges."

6 MINISERIES AND MOVIE CONTENDERS: HBO still dominates, but dark horses are emerging

Carlos (Sundance Channel miniseries)

Cinema Verite (HBO movie)

Downton Abbey (PBS miniseries)

Mildred Pierce (HBO miniseries)

The Pillars of the Earth (Starz miniseries)

Too Big to Fail (HBO movie)