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‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,’ Netflix and the Emmys TV Movie Crisis (Column)

As A-list stars and auteurs made their way to TV this decade, “limited series” orders became a way to sign them up without having to lock in full-season commitments. The format has become such a dominant part of modern TV culture that it’s hard to believe that less than a decade ago there were too few miniseries (as the genre was then dubbed) to even mount its own category.

In 2011, the Television Academy merged TV movie and miniseries into one consolidated program field because the number of miniseries entries had dropped below the threshold needed for at least five nominees. Ironically, that same year both PBS’ “Downton Abbey” and FX’s “American Horror Story” premiered — and the success of those shows swiftly became the template for a whole new kind of “limited series” that now dominates the genre.

The impact of “Downton,” a limited series that then became a regular drama, can be seen in series such as USA’s “The Sinner” and HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” which were also originally one-time events that then morphed into traditional series. “American Horror Story,” meanwhile, popularized the trend of anthology series reinventing themselves every year with new casts and storylines, allowing the program to remain in the limited series competition. (With the exception of this year, as “American Horror Story” brought back old characters and storylines and had to move to drama series.)

With so many contenders, the Television Academy once again split limited series and TV movies into two fields in 2014. (The acting categories are still together, however.)

But now it’s the telepic race facing a bit of a category crisis. Invented by the broadcast networks in the 1960s and 1970s, the made-for-TV movie genre became the playground for HBO to dominate starting in 1993, when it won with a tie: “Barbarians at the Gate” and “Stalin.” Between 1993 and 2015, HBO won the TV movie Emmy all but three times, with high-end films such as “Game Change,” “Temple Grandin,” “Grey Gardens,” “Warm Springs,” “The Gathering Storm,” “A Lesson Before Dying,” “Miss Evers’ Boys” and “Truman.”

But then the category shifted — and hard. Emmy voters have almost suddenly gravitated toward one-offs from series, which aren’t technically TV movies at all.

Netflix has won the past two years in the TV movie category with two different episodes of “Black Mirror”: “USS Callister” (2018) and “San Junipero” (2017). The service got away with it because stand-alone episodes can be counted as movies at the Emmys — that is how PBS won it in 2016 with “Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.”

But that hasn’t sat well with everyone, which is why the Academy instituted the so-called “Black Mirror” rule this year: Entries in the telepic category must now be at least 75 minutes long. That would have made “USS Callister,” at 76 minutes, still eligible, but “San Junipero” (61 minutes) wouldn’t have made the cut.

What’s odd is that Netflix has plenty of movies that aren’t Oscar contenders and might actually make some waves should they be submitted: The streamer’s sci-fi thriller “Extinction,” action disaster film “How It Ends,” Kristen Bell/Kelsey Grammer vehicle “Like Father,” romantic comedies “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and “Always Be My Maybe,” and Amy Poehler-directed “Wine Country” would all be eligible — and might stand out as medium-budgeted films.

Instead, Netflix is placing its bets on a strategy that has worked for the programmer in recent years: Submitting individual episodes, or special long-form editions, of its series. In 2019, Netflix is only entering two contenders for TV movie, “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” and “Sense8: Together Until the End.”

Netflix’s drama films tend to instead be submitted for Oscar eligibility, but that still leaves a segment of films that might make a dent at the Emmys, particularly given that broadcast and cable networks aren’t making as many high-quality telepics anymore.

But perhaps it’s time to split the category even further and recognize the one TV long-form genre that everyone seems to be focused on these days: Create an “outstanding Christmas movie” category.

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