In this tumultuous entertainment news cycle, when the Oscars are only a few days away and Charlie Sheen is indicating that he hasn't hit rock bottom just yet, there's been one news tidbit that has largely escaped unnoticed. Yesterday, word came in from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences that they're merging the miniseries and made-for-television movie categories. The networks had been lobbying for the past several years to weasel out of broadcasting htese categories, since they can't be bothered to produced long-form programming anymore, so the awards in these categories predominantly go to cable. I posted in the past that I was worried about this happening, because television, particularly HBO, is one of the last bastions for certain mid-range film projects that we would never see otherwise, like "Temple Grandin," which was a big Emmy winner last year.
Instinctively, I don't like the decision because it's taking away the spotlight from some lesser-seen television that isn't eligible for other major awards and would seem to be speeding the decline of the miniseries and made-for-television movie formats. On the other hand, the decision may be out of the Academy's hands. For the past two years, the miniseries categories only had two nominees apiece. This year, it was HBO's "The Pacific" against PBS's "Return to Cranford." Last year, it was HBO's "Generation Kill" up against PBS's "Little Dorrit." With dwindling numbers of potential contenders, the miniseries category might go away on its own in a few years without any intervention. All the other categories for miniseries and made-for-television movies have been merged since their inception. Originally, these were much more amorphously defined, with everything that wasn't honoring a regular series lumped in under the amorphous heading "Specials." Eventually the dramatic presentations were separated out from the variety shows, award ceremonies, and non-fiction programs. Best Miniseries trophies started being given away in 1973, and the Best Made-for-Television Movie category was inaugurated with "The Miracle Worker" in 1980.
The Miniseries and Made-for-Television Movie races are so intertwined, it would be difficult to separate them out, but if I were running things, I wouldn't be so quick to lump them together. Looking at the last few nominees for the Best Miniseries category, I think it would make for a much more interesting race if they were added to the Best Dramatic Series category instead. After all, structually "The Pacific" and "John Adams" are much closer to serials like "Mad Men" and "Dexter" than single presentation made-for-television movies like "Temple Grandin" and "Grey Gardens." No doubt, producers would argue that the miniseries have an unfair advantage in being higher budgeted, with fewer format rules, and only having to worry about a far smaller number of episodes. However, since cable started getting into the drama business, with their shorter seasons and more variable scheduling, this is no longer the case. Sure, "Return to Cranford" was only four hours long over two installments, but "The Pacific" ran for ten hours and "Little Dorrit" for fourteen. This year's Best Drama winner was "Mad Men," which had thirteen hour-long episodes. Other nominees included "Breaking Bad," "Big Love," and "True Blood," all at twelve or thirteen episodes apiece.
I can't help thinking that the merger decision is short-sighted. Sure, miniseries are out of style now, but that doesn't mean that the pendulum couldn't swing back in a couple of years. There was a boom in fantasy miniseries after "Gulliver's Travels" in 1996, and I used to love wasting afternoons whenever the Sci Fi Channel would marathon them. You'd think that the lack of competition in the category right now might spur some of the networks to push a few new projects into production, just to make their offerings look more diverse. Unfortunately, original productions are expensive, and everybody is getting more risk-averse these days. Miniseries and made-for-television movies are scarce outside of cable now, being pushed aside for cheaper reality fare. A few big projects will still slip through every now and then, which gives me hope. ABC is looking into a "Wicked" miniseries and the History Channel's troubled Kennedys project finally found a home on ReelzChannel. But you have to go to premium cable for the good stuff, like the miniseries prequel to Starz's "Spartacus" series, and HBO's new version of "Mildred Pierce" with Kate Winslet.
The miniseries is such a versatile format, and I'm sorry to see its decline in American television. As a movie nut, I often find best movie lists sneaking in the great miniseries like "Fanny and Alexander," "Berlin Alexanderplatz," and "The Kingdom." Prominent on my current to-watch list is Olliver Assayas's "Carlos." I don't know if we're ever going to see the days of "Roots" again, when a miniseries could keep a rapt audience for eight consecutive nights, but the potential for great television still remains. I hope Hollywood won't lose sight of it completely.