Emmys 2011: Sorry, HBO — You Don’t Have a Lock on Mini-Series/Movies Awards Anymore

Merging the two categories might finally open the door for a giant-killer

For years, it has been a foregone Emmy-night conclusion: HBO will be taking home the award for Outstanding Made for Television Movie. The premium channel’s 2010 victory for “Temple Grandin” pushed its string of wins in the category to a dizzying seven in a row.

Even more impressive, HBO has failed to win the award just twice since 1993.

In February, however, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences tossed a banana peel into the Emmy-hoarding network’s path to the podium when its board of governors voted to combine TV movies with miniseries, a category in which HBO has historically performed strongly (“The Pacific” won in 2010) but has by no means dominated.

Mildred PierceThe winnowing has generated some much-needed pre-nomination buzz for two genres that have struggled in recent years to captivate the telecast viewership. But it also begs an intriguing question: Now that miniseries have been added to the mix, has the door swung open for another network to break HBO’s stranglehold over made-for-television movies category?

HBO remains a formidable foe, with the high-profile miniseries “Mildred Pierce” (left) and a couple of pedigreed movies, including “Cinema Verite,” in the running. But its competitors see a chance to dethrone the old category's king.

“I have high hopes that will happen this year,” says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS’ “Masterpiece,” which has submitted five entries for consideration in the newly created Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category. “And I think it’ll be a sweet one if we win.”

Few would call a “Masterpiece” victory in the category an upset, as the venerable PBS program’s stock-in-trade is well-wrought period dramas and light comedies that have over the years collectively netted the franchise a respectable 51 awards in various categories, including top honors for the 2009 miniseries “Little Dorrit.” (This despite having no budget for Emmy campaigning.)

CarlosNor will the non-profit broadcasting service be the year’s only contender to what is widely viewed as being HBO’s throne again this year; Starz (“Pillars of the Earth,” Sundance Channel (“Carlos,” right) and upstart ReelzChannel (“The Kennedys”) all have legitimate shots at scoring one of the expanded category’s six nominations.

The thrill of beating the bigger dog at the Emmy game is hardly the only prize at stake. Emmy victories for poorly-funded PBS or smaller cable networks such as Sundance can be crucial in spurring support for acquisitions and for getting ambitious productions into the pipeline. Millions of dollars in revenue is on the line, not to mention the livelihood of those whose careers depend on how well their productions do.

Money, sadly, is the root behind the merging of the categories, because the pricey cable productions have virtually eliminated broadcast networks from the equation. “It’s a reflection of the sad fact that the networks are not doing miniseries anymore,” says Eaton, who has helmed “Masterpiece” since 1985. “They’re too expensive.”

The decline in original network miniseries productions, once a regular part of the big three’s programming and Emmy strategy, is glaring. In the 20 years following the 1973 introduction of the miniseries category, ABC, CBS and NBC combined to produce 14 award-winners; since 1992, they’ve scored only two. There have been none since ABC’s “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” won at the 2001 ceremony.

ElvisThe most recent network-produced miniseries even to earn a nomination? CBS’s two-part “Elvis” (left), way back in 2005.

The absence of the networks, which brought game-changers such as “Roots” and “The Holocaust” to television, has led to a gradual jettisoning of the once-thriving category’s fanbase, and indirectly hastened its extinction.

“The decision to merge was based on the general decline over the last ten years in the number of miniseries entered in the competition,” explains John Leverence, senior vice president of awards for the Television Academy. “For example, in 2002, there were 12 entries. In 2009 there were seven. In 2010 there were five.”

The dearth of entries triggered an obscure Emmy Awards rule that calls into question any category unable to field a full complement of five nominees in consecutive years. The past two seasons, just one miniseries apiece from HBO and PBS squared off against each other. The consolidation completes a make-over that began years ago with the mergers of other miniseries and movies categories, such as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie.

Benedict CumberbatchIronically, the 2010-11 season has been a banner year for miniseries. Apart from the five worthy “Masterpiece” entries — “Downton Abbey,” the remake of “Upstairs Downstairs,” “Any Human Heart,” “Sherlock: A Study in Pink” (with Benedict Cumberbatch, right) and “Wallander II: The Fifth Woman” — legitimate miniseries contenders eligible this year include Sundance’s “Carlos,” a three-part co-production about Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal; Starz’s eight-part “Pillars of the Earth,” starring Ian McShane and Donald Sutherland; ReelzChannel’s controversial “The Kennedys” (which A&E developed but ultimately bailed on); and HBO’s stylish “Mildred Pierce,” directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet.

And the future looks bright: PBS and HBO keep plugging away, History is planning Kevin Costner's mini “The Hatfields and the McCoys” and Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's “The Bible,” and 2012 will mark A&E’s return to the genre with a miniseries produced by Ridley and Tony Scott.

While Leverence says that the feedback he’s received from the Academy’s board of governors indicates that the upswing in the genre could lead them to revisit the field again next year, restoring miniseries to its own category wouldn’t fix the problem that the movie side of the coin has suffered from for years: its predictable lack of network diversity. Unless madness sets in this voting season and the cheesy Syfy original “Mega Python vs. Gatoroid” sneaks in (dare to dream), only two eligible made-for-TV films would appear to possess the muscle required to nudge the eligible heavy-hitting miniseries from being nominated. They are “Cinema Verite” and “Too Big to Fail” — both of which, unsurprisingly, are the products of HBO.

But even if HBO is the clear frontrunner to take home the hybrid category’s first award, the change has rallied the makers of movies and miniseries as a whole, with a possible trickle-down effect for the genres going forward. And even if the cable giant triumphs, at least the category will be fiercely contested leading up to the Sept. 18 ceremony — which Leverence admits was part of the rationale.

“The consolidation in programs will certainly enrich the level of competition,” he says, “and more excitement for the genres may well ensue.”

For the first time in years, one of Emmy night’s biggest dramas may well concern miniseries and movies — although even its combatants seem to understand that toppling the giant won’t be easy.

“It is like David and Goliath whenever we’re up against HBO,” says Eaton.