CBS has had enough. It was one thing when cable networks first got into the awards game, stealing Emmys and Golden Globes with 13-episode seasons from network shows offering 22. It’s a completely different battle now, with five strong contenders made up of 10 episodes or less vying for the Best Drama Series prize at this year’s Emmy Awards. In a “For Your Consideration” mailer sent out to Emmy voters in support of “The Good Wife” — a two-time nominee for Best Drama that has been shut out of the race its last two seasons — the network included a page featuring a bar graph that points out the discrepancy in episode counts for each Best Drama Series contender.
The network has decided it’s time voters saw its creative teams are producing almost three times as many episodes as a season of “True Detective” or “Breaking Bad.” It’s a topic that’s been out there for quite some time, but one that’s been launched front and center in the 2014 Emmys race thanks, in part, to this mailer, but also by HBO’s decision to run their new “series” “True Detective” as just that instead of a miniseries. One could argue “Breaking Bad” breaking up its final season is understandable. The same goes for “Mad Men’s” mad scheme. Whittling “Downton Abbey” down to nine episodes is fine, and it’s all in the game for “Game of Thrones” sitting at 10. But “True Detective,” a standalone story told in only eight episodes with characters who will never be seen again placing itself on the same level as shows establishing arcs every year that could last five? That’s just criminal.
On the other hand, it could be natural selection. Once cable networks started making original programming, it was no longer a four-team league. Network after network jumped on the bandwagon to reach where we are today. “The Sopranos” was the first cable network program to win the Emmy for Best Drama Series. Though it was nominated in each of its first four seasons, the iconic David Chase gangster saga didn’t win until 2004, when it finally topped the previous four-time winner, “The West Wing.” HBO would win again in 2007 for “The Sopranos,” with “Lost” (ABC) and “24” (Fox) taking top honors in the interim seasons, but it’s been a cable network bringing home the gold for the last seven years (with “Mad Men” winning four times).
The “rules” of what makes a show a drama series and what doesn’t are slowly being taken apart, creating avenues for new creative thinking and popular original programming to be included in the awards race. The Emmys rules state that to be eligible as a series (drama or comedy) they must be “programs with
multiple episodes (minimum of six), where the majority of the running time of at least six of
the total eligible episodes are primarily comedic for comedy series entries, or primarily
dramatic for dramatic series entries.” To qualify as a miniseries, the entry must be “based on a single theme or story line, which is resolved within the piece. […] A miniseries consists of two or more episodes with a total running time of at least four
broadcast hours (at least 150 program minutes).” As you can see, this allows for some crossover with specific programs, in which case it’s up to the producer to apply for dual eligibility and then choose which category to submit the show under.
But that only explains why the shows with fewer episodes than the historical standard are allowed to contend, not whether or not it should matter to voters — or even if it’s fair play. As a fan of “True Detective,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “House of Cards,” and many more cable shows (what TV fan isn’t?), I want to say it shouldn’t matter. Quality is king, and Television Academy members should vote for whatever television show is the best, not the best for the longest amount of time. After all, you wouldn’t give a movie an edge because its running time was longer than another film’s, would you?
Mindy Kaling might. Not to put words in the mouth of the comedian behind Fox’s “The Mindy Project,” but Kaling made an impassioned argument for broadcast comedies deserving as much or even more respect than those found on cable channels at this year’s SXSW Festival. “The show is 21-and-a-half minutes, and if you’re on a cable show or HBO you get 28 or 30 minutes,” Kaling said. “We wish we had more time, so there could be act breaks and there could be commercials. But I have to say it hones you and makes you better.”
Adam Pally, who took part in the same panel, chimed in. “I think that one of the problems with lumping all the shows that you’re talking about like Netflix, streaming and HBO and all these different [shows], they’re not the same thing,” Pally said. “An HBO sitcom, a 30-minute show, it’s a different beast than a 22-minute network show that’s a comedy. You’re writing differently. You have less episodes to do.”
The differences between comedy and drama aside, these two writers have a point. The cable shows are given more creative freedom and have more time to do what they need to do. They can make longer shows when they need to (both “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” have taken advantage of their ratings by releasing episodes longer than an hour), or they can split up seasons, increasing the episode order or decreasing it as necessary (as “The Newsroom” did in season two when Aaron Sorkin asked to redo the first two episodes).
While these aren’t options for producers of programs on broadcast networks, the necessary changes are only deemed as such to improve the quality. For every creator like Matthew Weiner who didn’t request an extra episode for “Mad Men’s” final season, there’s a Sorkin who needed it to make the show better (and anyone who stuck with “The Newsroom” through “Red Team III” knows it worked). Again, it comes back to quality vs. quantity. Producing 22 episodes of “The Good Wife” might be more difficult than creating eight episodes of “True Detective,” but which one will I remember in 10 years? Which show am I most excited to come back for another season, even if the characters will be different and the story brand new? You, and Emmy voters, can answer for yourselves, but if you ask me, the light’s winning.