Emmys continue to blur line between series and miniseries

What distinguishes a series from a miniseries at the Emmys? The difference used to be more or less clear, but in recent years several programs that straddle the fence have forced the TV academy to make case-by-case judgments.

Last year, British imports “Downton Abbey” and “Luther” competed as miniseries even though both had cliffhanger endings and were renewed for second seasons. This year, “Downton,” which won the Best Movie/Miniseries contest, is switching to the Best Drama Series race. However, “Luther” will remain in the longform category, where it will be joined by several shows that a few years ago would likely have been forced to compete as continuing dramas.

ABC’s “The River” and “Missing,” FX’s “American Horror Story,” and BBC America’s “The Hour” will compete as miniseries this year; “Horror” and “Hour” are set to return for second seasons, while ABC’s low-rated dramas were recently canceled. The second season of BBC America’s “Sherlock” and the first season of PBS’s “Case Histories” are also eligible. But is it reasonable to consider these programs miniseries?

Consider HBO’s racing drama “Luck,” which was canceled after one season following the deaths of three horses during production. According to Variety, the academy dismissed the possibility that “Luck” could compete as a miniseries, explaining that it was “open-ended at the end of the first season and didn’t have a specific beginning, middle and end of the storyline” and therefore “didn’t fit the full miniseries criteria.” However, that standard, if universally applied, would also have disqualified “Downton” and “Luther” last year, as well as “The Hour” and “The River” this year.

This type of confusion is what the academy hoped to avoid in 2007 when it amended its rules for miniseries to exclude programs with unfinished storylines and a “Created by” credit as these are clear signifiers of continuing series. In 2006, Showtime’s “Sleeper Cell” had been nominated for Best Miniseries despite producing multiple seasons, and Andre Braugher won Best Movie/Miniseries Actor for FX’s “Thief,” a series that was canceled after its six-episode first season. In 2005, USA’s “The 4400” was nominated for Best Miniseries for its five-episode first season; the sci-fi drama would go on to air for three more years.

By making exceptions for “Downton” and “Luther” last year, the academy effectively opened the flood gates, and now the distinction between a series and a miniseries has come down primarily to the academy’s subjective judgment. This invites the inevitable question: Why does one program merit an exception, but not another? For instance, if “Luther” was allowed to enter its open-ended, six-episode first season in last year’s miniseries race, why couldn’t “The Walking Dead” have entered its open-ended, six-episode first season in the same category?

MAKE YOUR EMMY PREDICTIONS: What will be nominated for Best Movie/Miniseries?

Log your predictions in all top Emmy races. Compete against experts!

It’s easy to understand why networks and producers would prefer to try their luck in Emmy’s longform categories. There are fewer movies and miniseries produced than continuing series, so the competition is leaner and nominations are easier to come by.

But is the solution for the academy to simply go back to drawing a hard line, without exception? Perhaps not. The television industry has drastically changed in the last 20 years in the advent of cable television and the internet. Gone are the days when TV was dominated by a handful of broadcast networks airing mostly uniform, 22-episode seasons of their shows. Today, cable series flourish by airing as few as 10 episodes per year. And foreign imports often produce fewer than that. Would it be fair to ask “The Hour” (six episodes) to compete as equals against “Mad Men” (13 episodes) or “The Good Wife” (22 episodes)?

Then again, size doesn’t seem to matter as much as it used to. Shorter cable series have dominated Best Drama Series in recent years, winning the last five in a row. “The Sopranos” won in 2007 for its final half-season, which comprised only nine episodes. And “Mad Men” has won every year since for 13-episode seasons. In 2011, only one out of the six Best Drama nominees (“The Good Wife”) produced more than 20 episodes. And according to our prediction center, it is likely that none of this year’s Best Drama nominees will have aired more than a baker’s dozen.

As television production models and viewing options continue to evolve, the Emmys face the important challenge of how to evolve with it. But is it reasonable for the TV academy to continue making exceptions for shortened and canceled series, or have the exceptions finally overridden the rule?

Don’t miss important Emmy news and predictions – Get free Gold Derby updates

More News from GoldDerby