Exclusive: ‘Downton Abbey’ will switch to Emmy race for Best Drama Series

Move over, “Mad Men” and “Homeland.” Gold Derby has learned exclusively that “Downton Abbey” will switch to the Emmy race for Best Drama Series, thereby setting up a fierce TV awards smackdown.

Last year, the first installment of “Downton Abbey” won Best Miniseries over widespread complaints that it was really a regular, British TV drama series masquerading as a mini in order to avoid a clash with “Mad Men,” which ended up tying the record for most victories as Best Drama Series (four) held by “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “The West Wing.”

If “Mad Men” prevails again this September, it will not only set a new record for most wins as Best Drama, but it will tie “Frasier’s” record for most triumphs as best series, drama or comedy (five). Up until now, “Mad Men’s” toughest rival was presumed to be “Homeland,” which recently won Best Drama Series and lead actress (Claire Danes) at the Golden Globes.

Originally, the first installment of “Downton Abbey” aired in seven episodes on British TV, but then was recut to fit into four episodes for Yankee television. “Downton” had a “created by” credit and ended with a plot cliffhanger (World War I looming), two factors which usually define a program as a drama series instead of a mini, but the TV academy ruled that “Downton” could compete as a mini.

Recently, “Downton” returned to the tube in seven episodes airing both in the U.S. and U.K., so it exceeded the number of segments that usually define a program as a regular series (six).

“After starting out as a miniseries, ‘Downton Abbey’ caught fire and so now it moves over to drama series category as it plans for future TV seasons,” TV academy awards chief John Leverence tells Gold Derby. “It follows the trajectory of previous shows like ‘The Starter Wife’ that started out as a miniseries and then became a regular series.”

Category confusion surrounding “Downtown Abbey” looks very similar to the same hubbub that loomed over the TV series upon which it is based. After “Upstairs, Downstairs” won Best Drama Series twice in a row (1974, 1975), the TV academy moved it over to the category for Best Limited Series in order to quiet complaints that it had been trouncing favorite American shows like “The Waltons” and “Kojak.” But “Upstairs, Downstairs” triggered a new outcry when it beat the hugely popular mini “Rich Man, Poor Man.”

L.A. Times TV critic Cecil Smith threw a hissy fit, accusing the academy of category gerrymandering: “Ah, the backstage maneuvering that must have gone on to move ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ from Best Drama Series, where it belongs, to Best Limited Series, where it doesn’t. Meanwhile, ‘Columbo’ was being shifted from Best Limited Series, where it belongs, to Best Drama Series, where it doesn’t. You see, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ has won the Best Drama Series Emmy for the last two years and we can’t have that now, can we? Emmys going to Britain!”

One year later the TV academy moved “Upstairs, Downstairs” back over to Best Drama Series so it would be no threat to “Roots.” It won Best Drama again, this time beating “Baretta,” “Columbo,” “Family” and “Police Story.”

“Upstairs, Downstairs” thus went undefeated in whatever series category where it was placed. Now Emmywatchers must wonder: Ditto for “Downton Abbey”?

The L.A. Times reports that season two of the critically hailed British series has been a substantial hit on these shores too: “The PBS hit about the decline of the British aristocracy circa 1912 wrapped up its second season with a two-hour finale Sunday that drew 5.4 million total viewers, according to Nielsen. That was up 28% over last month’s season premiere and gave PBS its best numbers since the premiere of Ken Burns’ ‘National Parks’ series in 2009. Overall, season 2 of ‘Downton’ more than doubled PBS’ typical prime-time average.”

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