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Emmy Race: Mini Category Gets Max Competition

Variety logo Variety 6/8/2017 Rob Owen
© Provided by Variety

Six years ago, this category couldn’t even stand on its own two feet. Now it’s one of the most competitive in all of Emmy-dom.

There are at least 12 TV series potentially vying for the limited series Emmy, as the category formerly called miniseries is now known, this season. The contenders boast starry talent and marquee creatives including Ryan Murphy, who helped revive the flagging miniseries category earlier this decade, and are backed by networks including FX, HBO, ABC, Starz and even National Geographic Channel.

It was a completely different story in 2011, when the TV Academy merged it (temporarily, it turned out) with the TV movie category after two consecutive years with just a pair of miniseries nominated for Emmys.

That same year, Murphy’s “American Horror Story” debuted on FX, helping to reinvent the miniseries and by extension revive the category. By the end of the show’s first 12 episodes, “AHS” had revealed itself to be — surprise! — an anthology-based miniseries.

Suddenly, the miniseries was hot again, with Murphy leading the charge. The “Glee” co-creator has already replicated the “AHS” concept with “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and “Feud.” And he’s been getting increasing competition as other networks and showrunners have adapted his strategy.

In 2015, the TV Academy changed the name of the miniseries category, which had reverted to its own entity the year prior, to “limited series” in a move reflecting the changes to the format.

“The Academy is adapting and evolving to what the modern world of television looks like,” says Starz president of programming Carmi Zlotnik, whose channel backs “The Missing” and “The White Princess.” “They’re being very responsive.”

FX original programming president Eric Schrier credits Murphy with showing them how the anthology model could work for them financially with “AHS.”

“Traditionally networks were concerned about the economics of miniseries or limited series because you’d spend a lot of money on marketing and it doesn’t return every year: the business really profited over the last 10 to 20 years from returning series, whether serialized or non-serialized,” Schrier says. “Ryan opened our eyes to the possibilities of the marketplace and we figured out the business model to do it.

National Geographic hopes its “Genius” will get traction.

“The number of episodes should fit the story that you’re telling. For shorter stories, that’s a movie. For longer ones, there’s open-ended series. And then there’s this other category of miniseries and anthology series that are somewhere in between where it doesn’t feel like you have to get to 50 or 60 episodes to be successful. Sometimes you can tell a well-told story in four, six, eight, 10 episodes and it’s a complete story and that’s a great thing.”

The Television Academy currently defines a limited series as a program with two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 minutes that tells a complete, non-recurring story with no ongoing storyline or main characters in subsequent seasons. This year’s contenders include ABC’s “American Crime” and “When We Rise”; FX’s “American Horror Story: Roanoke,” “Fargo” and “Feud”; HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” “The Night Of” and “The Young Pope”; National Geographic Channel’s “Genius” and “Mars”; plus Starz’s “The Missing” and “The White Princess.”

In a TV environment of seemingly endless viewing choices, there’s an appeal to limited series. Viewers like them.

“If you know something is just an eight-episode story, you know what kind of commitment you need to make from the outset,” says Zlotnik.

Casey Bloys, HBO programming president, agrees that limited series have appeal to savvy viewers who might feel overwhelmed by the multiplicity of choices in content today.

“I know for myself as a viewer, sometimes knowing something is a limited series there is a bit of a relief in knowing it’s eight episodes and done,” Bloys says. “In this environment, as a viewer, that has some benefits.”

Bloys says another reason for the rise of limited series on TV is the decline of another medium.

“I’m trying to put this delicately: I guess it’s because of the implosion of the movie industry,” Bloys says, pointing to HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and its all-star cast that includes Oscar-winners Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. “There’s no question 10 years ago that would have been a movie. The appetite in the feature business for adult content, non-comic book fare has diminished and TV has shown a willingness to tell those stories. And some of those stories are better told in a longer format.”

John Ridley’s first project after winning a screenwriting Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” was not another movie, but producing the “American Crime” miniseries for ABC. And Billy Bob Thornton helped elevate the original limited run of the “Fargo” TV adaptation on FX; this season, Ewan McGregor is in a leading role.

Traditional miniseries existed prior to the “AHS” game-changer, but they’ve become re-popularized in recent years. This year ABC aired its gay-rights drama “When We Rise” over multiple consecutive nights, a traditional miniseries rollout.

“These things are all on a case-by-case basis,” says Schrier. “We try not to let the business dictate the creative. I look at my job as trying to figure out the business to support the creative. If you wanted to engineer a show from the business standpoint, a procedural drama is a very good economic business: Standing sets, each episode has a beginning, middle and end. ‘CSI’ and ‘Law & Order’ and multi-cam comedy is a great business. But I think today when there are 450 or more television programs, you have to try to stick out. You can’t just program something because it’s a good widget; you want to make it something that is bespoke.”

Talent that might be leery of signing onto an ongoing series is more likely to agree to a limited series. “We can get real marquee talent,” Zlotnik says. “Film talent is drawn to television when they can do a close-ended story.”

Limited series also appeal to channels just getting into the scripted programming game.

“For us it makes a lot of sense as we are in the midst of transforming National Geographic Channel into a real premium destination for content,” says NGC CEO Courteney Monroe. “It makes sense for our brand [to enter the market] with shows with scope and scale and to have partnerships with A-list creative talent.”

NGC’s “Genius,” an anthological limited series that will tell the story of a different genius each season, comes from Imagine Entertainment; Ron Howard directed the series premiere, his first time directing a scripted drama for television. The show kicked off in late April with a focus on Albert Einstein, played by Geoffrey Rush, and has already been renewed for a second season that will focus on a different genius to be named at a later date.

“We’re still in early days but the early success has been really tremendous,” Monroe says. “What that signals to me is the audience demand for us to be in this space.”

This embarrassment of riches has one downside: Internal competition for Emmy slots. While that may have been familiar territory for broadcasters back in the pre-cable era, it’s newer terrain for some cable outlets.

“We have had that in comedy when we’ve had ‘Silicon Valley’ and ‘Veep’ [nominated] in the same year,” Bloys says. “It’s a nice problem to have. You love them equally and I don’t like to see anybody lose and I’m thrilled for the ones that win.”

Studios that produce various contenders campaign on behalf of series, too. FX and its studio partners on “AHS” (20th Century Fox Television), “Feud” (Fox 21 Television Studios) and “Fargo” (MGM) campaign for each show. NatGeo has fewer political minefields to navigate; both contenders come from Imagine Entertainment.

“But ‘Genius,’ I will say, is our priority,” Monroe says. “This is a fully scripted, highly premium, most creatively ambitious show we’ve ever produced.”

NGC will push “Mars” in special effects and other categories.

“It’s daunting from a competitive standpoint that is for sure now that we’ve dipped our toe in this water,” says Monroe, who previously ran marketing at Emmy powerhouse HBO. “It was less daunting sitting at HBO than it is sitting at NatGeo.”

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