Stop Squeezing the Limited Series Category, Emmys

TheWrap magazine: There’s something wrong when the hottest, most competitive category on the show is only allowed five nominees

Fellow Travelers
"Fellow Travelers" (Credit: Showtime)

The limited series format is a monster. And that has created a problem for the Television Academy.

Year after year, limited series are among the buzziest shows on television and the ones that attract the biggest stars. Contenders this year in those acting categories include one 2024 Oscar winner, Robert Downey Jr., and a formidable array of other luminaries that includes Jodie Foster, Lily Gladstone, Brie Larson, Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Austin Butler, Michael Douglas, Jon Hamm, Ewan McGregor and Laura Dern. 

(Granted, the drama series acting categories can counter with Emma Stone and Gary Oldman, but still.)

And in a year in which the roster of drama and comedy series contenders has been depleted by 2023’s strikes, limited series supplied a full slate of high-profile new shows to grab viewers: “Lessons in Chemistry” in October, “Fargo” in November, “True Detective: Night Country” and “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans” in January, “The Regime” in March, “Ripley” and “Baby Reindeer” in April …

Let’s face it: When FX announced that “Shōgun” would be entered in the drama series categories rather than the limited series ones, the move turned the show from a strong contender in a fiercely competitive category to a clear favorite in a significantly weaker one.

Limited series are ideal for streamers, drawing new subscribers in the way that another season of a long-running drama or comedy series wouldn’t do.  And they’re ideal for actors who get to play a character through a longer, more satisfying storytelling arc without committing to a series that could last years. 

The format even appeals to filmmakers who have brought the idea into cinemas: In May, Kevin Costner went to the Cannes Film Festival to premiere “Horizon: An American Saga,” part one in a planned four-movie epic, while Sam Mendes announced what is essentially a miniseries about the Beatles bound for theatrical release and consisting of separate movies for John, Paul, George and Ringo.

So why is this good news about the format a problem for the Emmys? Because there’s something wrong when the hottest, most competitive category on the show is only allowed five nominees, while two other categories (Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Comedy Series) get eight nominees each because they’re supposed to be the prime Emmy races.  

I made a similar case on behalf of the limited series category back in 2021, another year in which the production of series television was disrupted (by the pandemic, not the strikes). At the time, I wrote this: “Let’s face it: Since ‘Fargo’ and ‘True Detective’ came along in the mid-2010s (and, yes, ‘American Horror Story’ before that), the limited series has been TV’s real prestige format… Attention, Emmy producers: The limited series is the hottest format on television these days. Remember that when you plan the show’s order.”

At the time, I was arguing that the Academy should move the Outstanding Limited Series category to the end of the Emmy telecast, a spot virtually always occupied by Outstanding Drama Series. And in fact, the Emmys did exactly that, ending that year’s telecast not with “The Crown” winning the drama award but with “The Queen’s Gambit” taking the limited series prize.

But limited series are still disrespected at the Emmys, this time in a different way. The Television Academy determines the number of nominees in each category by a formula that depends on the number of eligible programs: Five nominees if there are between 20 and 80 submissions, six if there are 81 to 160, seven if there are 161 to 240, eight if there are more than 240.  The only exceptions are in the Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama Series categories, which get an automatic eight nominees no matter how many shows qualify. (If they had been subject to the same rule as everybody else last year, they would have had six nominees each, not eight.)

While dramas and comedies get this exemption that gives them supersized categories, limited series are still stuck with the standard Emmy formula — and that means that year after year, they get only five nominees.  This year, some seriously strong work will inevitably miss out (current predictions have placed the likes of “Feud,” “Fellow Travelers,” “Masters of the Air,” “The Sympathizer” and “Lessons in Chemistry”on the bubble), and the cries of injustice will likely be louder than any complaints about the more robust series categories.

While Emmy officials seemed to have heard the pleas that I was making (as were others) three years ago, it’s useless to think they’ll do so again: This year’s Emmy rules were decided upon and published months ago, and there’s no way the Television Academy will suddenly change the number of nominees in a category as voting is going on.   

Still, it seems pretty simple: Whether or not Outstanding Limited Series is placed at the end of this year’s Emmy ceremony, it’s one of only two or three categories that’ll be in contention for that spot. If it’s worthy of being the grand finale, isn’t it worthy of getting one of those exemptions and having more than five nominees?

Well, isn’t it?

This story first appeared in the Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from our issue here.

Hoa Xuande The Sympathizer cover
Hoa Xuande photographed by Elizabeth Weinberg for TheWrap

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