The networks have all but given up on the mini-series format and HBO and other cable nets produce the occasional big- budget period pieces that perenially win this Emmy race. There is talk that the category could be merged with that of Made for Television Movie.
Instead, let’s open it up by allowing a minimum of three nominees to give the category more weight, and let’s go back to allowing in those limited-run series that currently qualify for Drama Series.
Emmy rules dictate that the number of nominations in any given category not exceed a third of the number of entries and that there always be a minimum of two nominations per race. That means there will only be two mini-series nominated until at least nine are entered.
That magic number might actually be met this year, with some high profile contenders making this an exciting race. HBO has one of the frontrunners with a remake of the classic film noir "Mildred Pierce" starring Oscar champ Kate Winslet and featuring Guy Pearce, Tony winner Brian F. O'Byrne and Oscar nominees Mare Winningham and Evan Rachel Wood. ABC has remade 1959 Oscar champ "Ben-Hur”, Starz has the fantasy drama "Pillars of the Earth" (featuring Emmy nominees Ian McShane and Donald Sutherland) and History Channel will air the buzzed-about biopic "The Kennedys" (starring Oscar nominee Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, and Oscar and Emmy nominee Tom Wilkinson), Syfy’s "The Phantom,"
IFC has another frontrunner "Carlos," a critically acclaimed Carlos the Jackal biopic from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas and starring buzzed-about newcomer Édgar Ramírez. And, under the Masterpiece umbrella, PBS has "Downton Abbey," "Sherlock," "Upstairs Downstairs," and the yet-to be-titled "Aurelio Zen" series starring Rufus Sewell.
Tha makes for 10 miniseries so far that might be submitted for Emmy consideration next year. Not included in this list are BBC America’s "Luther" and AMC’s "The Walking Dead." "Luther" may not be eligible if it is deemed to be a "foreign production" rather than "the result of a co-production (both financially and creatively) between U.S. and foreign partners, which precedes the start of production, and has a commitment to be shown on U.S. television prior to the start of production."
While both "Sherlock" and "Upstairs Downstairs" appear to be safe, as they are co-productions between PBS Masterpiece and the BBC, question marks surround the eligibility of "Downton Abbey," because it is not yet confirmed whether the strict co-production rules will apply.
Emmy rules also specifically provide that miniseries contenders must be standalone, i.e. "based on a single theme or story line, which is resolved within the piece." They also cannot be limited run series with a "created by" credit masquerading as a miniseries.
On a quick glance at the credits for "The Walking Dead," it is not completely apparent whether "Developed by Frank Darabont" breaches this restriction. It may be arguable that "The Walking Dead" has a better shot in the Miniseries category, so AMC will surely be looking into this and making a call before the deadline for submissions. However, if "The Walking Dead" is a ratings success, AMC would likely want to continue it for further seasons, thereby becoming more of a serialized drama series than a miniseries. Similarly, the recent announcement that British network ITV has ordered a second season of "Downton Abbey" further muddies the waters for that program’s eligibility.
The argument then rests with the overly restrictive Emmy rules. Should the rules be relaxed to allow for more limited-run series to compete separately from serialized drama series? That would guarantee programs like "Downton Abbey" and "The Walking Dead" a decent shot alongside shoo-ins like "Mildred Pierce" "Carlos" and maybe "Upstairs Downstairs." It might also do away with the need to eliminated the "minimum two nominated program" quota to by allowing a broader range of programs into the mix, ultimately injecting a more competitive edge into what is now largely an also-ran category.
Photo: Kate Winslet in "Mildred Pierce" (HBO)