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Broadcast Roars Back in Limited Series Race

One of the fiercest fights in this year’s Emmy Awards battle will unfold in a category that was on the endangered species list just a few years ago.

Miniseries have roared back to life — after reinventing themselves as “limited series,” per the Television Academy’s revised lingo. Another big change is that each of the Big Four nets have at least one horse in the race, for the first time in ages.

ABC hopes to grab some prestige points for “American Crime.” CBS is invested in “The Dovekeepers.” NBC has “The Slap” and “A.D.: The Bible Continues” while Fox is backing “24: Live Another Day” and “Gracepoint.”

Of course, cable still has a firm grip on the perceived front-runners, which include SundanceTV’s “The Honorable Woman,” HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge,” Starz’s “The Missing,” and PBS’ “Wolf Hall.”

For sure, there’s enough volume in the longform arena from the past season to make for real competition in landing a nod for best limited series. The miniseries format was so moribund five years ago that the Academy opted to combine the best made-for-TV movie and miniseries into a single category starting with the 2011 awards year. That decision was reversed for last year’s race as the number of contenders began to grow.

This year, there are at least two dozen to consider. This increase promises to make the lead and supporting acting categories particularly cutthroat as they remain combined for movies and miniseries.

The Academy refined its nomenclature this year to make “limited series” the new terminology for what most Emmy voters grew up calling miniseries. The tightened rules for what qualifies as a limited series includes a review process by an Academy Emmy Awards committee to make sure a project is appropriately submitted as a limited series. In a nutshell, a limited series has to have at least two episodes, run a minimum of 2½ hours and tell “a complete, non-recurring story (that) does not have an ongoing storyline and/or main characters in subsequent seasons.”

The rules were tightened up to minimize category jockeying by programs that skirted the line between an old-fashioned miniseries and those that happen to have shorter episode orders.

FX and producer Ryan Murphy created the reboot-every-season anthology series in 2011 with “American Horror Story.” Eyebrows were raised when FX submitted it in the miniseries category because of the lighter competition compared to the drama series heat. But the “Horror Story” format has since been embraced by numerous nets, including HBO with “True Detective.” Of course, “True Detective” swaggered into the drama series race last year, but for all its star power came away mostly empty-handed.

“Horror Story” has landed three consecutive noms for miniseries, but had to settle for a bevy of acting awards while the top prizes went to HBO’s “Game Change” in 2012 and “Behind the Candelabra” in 2013 (years when minis and movies were combined) and FX’s own “Fargo” last year.

Broadcasters are back in the miniseries game out of the need to deliver more original programming and fewer in-season repeats. Limited series are attractive because shorter episode orders mean a smaller outlay overall than for an ongoing series.

CBS was the last Big Four network to land a nom for miniseries with 2005’s “Elvis.” ABC’s “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” scored the last win in 2001.

HBO, of course, has been the dominant force in the longform field since 1993, when its first TV movie wins came in a tie between “Stalin” and “Barbarians at the Gate” and 1998, when it first took miniseries for “From the Earth to the Moon.” This year, there will be quite a few more barbarians lining up at the Emmy gate.

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