In the rush of discussing all of the potential Emmy nominees this year, a new wrinkle has gotten a little lost in the shuffle: The television academy has decided to combine the TV movie and miniseries categories for the first time.
On first blush, it would seem that it would be tough to judge the long-form miniseries against a two-hour movie. But, because of the changed landscape of television, combining the two categories will lead to stronger nominees and winners in the long run.
In the “olden” days of television — we’re talking about the 1970s and ’80s — it was pretty easy to discern between a TV movie and a miniseries, at least on a content level.
TV movies were generally small in scale, revolving around an issue or a moment in someone’s life, or around a particular condition or emotion. “Sybil” is a good example of that. Miniseries, on the other hand, were generally immense in scope, taking place over years or decades, or with immense casts. “Roots,” “The Winds of War” and “The Thorn Birds” come to mind when the subject of miniseries come up.
But now? The only real difference is length, and that’s up for debate. Because the broadcast networks have mostly gotten out of the movie and miniseries business, the idea of what each is has become muddled.
There are generally two levels of TV movie now: the feature-like films made by premium channels like HBO and Showtime, with big budgets, big-time directors and producers, and huge movie stars, and movies on Lifetime and other basic cable networks that are either ripped from the headlines or hew to the same formula that was successful on broadcast TV way back when.
In the past, for instance, a big-time movie like “Cinema Verite” with Diane Lane and Tim Robbins might be duking it out with something schlockier, like “The Craigslist Killer.” What that led to was a category that was pretty much dominated by HBO movies, with an occasional appearance by something from Showtime or PBS.
Miniseries, on the other hand, have gotten smaller in scope. We’ve talked before about the confusion that’s rampant in the nomination ballot — why is “Luther” a miniseries but “The Walking Dead” isn’t? — but it points out how limited the miniseries genre has gotten lately. While there are possible nominees that “feel” like miniseries, like HBO’s “Mildred Pierce” or PBS’ “Upstairs Downstairs,” there aren’t enough of them to make a robust category.
So now the two categories are combined. And, while it runs counterintuitive to think that a movie like “Cinema Verite” that sped through its subject matter could be compared to “Downstairs,” which had room to develop character and story, the caliber of the two projects help to bridge that gap.
At the very least, if combining the two categories means that a movie like “The Client List” is out of contention, that’ll be just fine with us.