Longform plays sked games

Many factors conspire to lend catchall feel to miniseries

When people think of the classic miniseries, what comes to mind is something steeped in history with lots of nifty costumes — or of classic serializations of novels like “Roots” and “Shogun.” Used to be that these programming nuggets ran, roughly, on consecutive nights until their conclusion.

But changing consumer tastes, evolving buying patterns and the advent of cable are among factors that have conspired to lend a catchall feel to a shrinking category. Of the 13 submissions this year, six are two-part movies and another is a three-parter. The rest are skeins of at least six episodes, which means they’d also qualify for Emmy consideration as a drama series.

“There’s definitely a conflation in the category of something that’s more than a TV movie but less than a recurring series,” says John Leverence, TV Academy awards senior veep.

Perhaps this is as it should be, since the first winner in the category (in 1974, when it was called Outstanding Limited Series) was that venerable spoke in NBC’s Sunday Mystery Movie wheel, “Columbo.”

The Academy doesn’t care if minis run six, eight or 10 episodes. (HBO’s 1998 winner “From the Earth to the Moon” ran 12.) The categorical constants — which haven’t changed in 20 years — are that entries must consist of at least two episodes, be at least four broadcast-hours long and be based on a single theme or storyline that’s resolved within the piece — no cliffhangers allowed.

One of the series submitted in the category this year will be returning next season: Showtime is bringing back “Sleeper Cell,” but with eight episodes scheduled instead of the 10 that ran this year. Showtime communications czar Rich Licata points to PBS’ three-time miniseries category winner “Prime Suspect” as a model.

“Sleeper Cell” may come closest to the familiar mini model of many parts aired over a short period of time. The show ran Sunday-Wednesday on consecutive nights over two weeks, with back-to-back episodes on a third and final Sunday. It’s the kind of programming real estate that only cable seems to be able to provide nowadays, particularly considering CBS’ cancellation of its long-standing Sunday Night Movie slot, where three of this year’s contenders were born.

There are plenty of good reasons for limited series to avoid the Emmy drama category, which requires a production to submit six episodes for consideration. One reason to go “mini” is that shows with full-season orders can cherry-pick the best episodes of the season for submission, where limited series like “Thief” or “Empire,” for instance, have to submit all six of their episodes.

Also a consideration: There have been 62 entries so far in the drama field, as opposed to the 13 in the mini category.

But there’s a drawback to swimming in such a small pool. Since rules stipulate there must be three times as many entries as nominees, only four minis will be nominated, as was the case last year.

Some of this year’s minis feel more episodic than others. For instance, ABC billed “Empire” as an “epic six-hour drama series.” And the first episode of FX’s “Thief,” about the planning and execution of a big heist, was filmed as a pilot in New Orleans and got picked up to series with a six-episode order.

FX spokesman John Solberg says “Thief” was always positioned to be a mini. “We gave ‘Over There’ a full, 13-episode order and submitted it (to the Academy) as a drama series. We ordered ‘Thief’ as a six-episode series.”

Ultimately, it’s up to a producer or network to determine which category is the best fit for a project. The most perceptive assessment of the material should lead to the right choice, says Leverence. “For instance, ‘Empire’ is the ramp-up to the Roman revolution. Clearly, there’s more to be said during and after the revolution, but the show doesn’t get the chance to go there.”

“Thief” creator Norman Morrill says he, too, would have liked to have had the opportunity to say more. “All good stories leave you with a resolution and a feeling afterward of what happens next.”

So, will more such limited series continue to throw in their Emmy lot with the miniseries category? That’s the cliffhanger.