The TV Movie category at the Emmy Awards has always been a disaster, but recent years have seen the category mired in new quagmires; issues that can only be solved by decisive action, taken not by the Television Academy, but by competing networks and streamers.
To understand the inherent dysfunction of the category, we must revisit its creation in 1992. Rather, we need to revisit the year before its creation.
In 1991, the Outstanding Drama or Comedy Special category was merged with the Outstanding Miniseries category creating an award for Outstanding Drama or Comedy Special and Miniseries — which would definitely score an imaginary Emmy for Most Unwieldy Category Name. Just a year later, the category was disbanded and split into two different categories: Outstanding Miniseries and Outstanding Made for Television Movie.
While maybe not the Golden Age of TV movies or limited series, this era is when everyone seemed the most clear on what constitutes a TV episode, what constitutes a TV movie, what constitutes a TV season, and what constitutes a miniseries, so while the nominees might not be great, they are, at least, comprehensible.
And so it stayed until 2011, when a lack of submissions led the Academy to again collapse the categories into one, now titled Outstanding Miniseries or Movie, a move that appears to have personally offended Ryan Murphy so much that he reignited the entire limited series industry. Thanks to an influx of limited series submissions, in 2014, the Academy again reinstated the TV movie and miniseries (now limited series) category split.
Newly separated, TV movie remained pretty straightforward, though premium cable players like HBO continued bringing in big-name Hollywood talent for big-budget Hollywood projects to great success. (See Emmy winners: “Game Change,” “Behind the Candelabra,” “The Normal Heart,” and “Bessie.”) Back then, however, projects were still very clearly movies that were made for television, not theatrical releases that ended up being purchased by TV distributors at film festivals.
Things in the TV Movie category began careening out of control in 2016, when “Sherlock” scored an Emmy for an episode of its anthology series. While a little out of the ordinary — and spurring questions of what a TV movie was really — the episode in question, “The Abominable Bride,” was 93 minutes long, far longer than an average episode of TV.
The next year, things got more off-kilter when “Black Mirror” won the category for one of its episodes, but this time, the episode in question was only 61 minutes long. The anthology series won three times in a row before the TV Academy implemented rules that would require anthology episodes to be at least 75 minutes long in order to be submitted as a TV movie. And then granted a pass to a 70-minute episode of “Black Mirror.” And then revoked the pass.
Further muddying the waters, in 2018 HBO’s “The Tale” was nominated in the category, a film produced for theatrical release and purchased by HBO Films. And then there’s the streaming competitors. While Netflix is busy arguing with the industry and the Academy Awards, trying to stake a claim to film legitimacy sans traditional theatrical releases, the behemoth refuses to submit any of its many original film projects in the TV Movie category at the Emmys. Rather than delineate between which of its movies are films and which of its movies are TV movies, the streamer lumps them all into the former category — even if they never get a theatrical release — seemingly, to rob critics of grounds that Netflix films are in fact TV movies.
But hope, and maybe even a solution, is on the horizon and you can thank Disney+ for the development. Given its origins, Disney+ has no need to attempt to establish any kind of theatrical presence for its films and can instead focus all of its energies on creating Disney+ movies, that is, TV movies, and submitting them at the Emmy Awards in the TV movie category. This year, many of the streamers most notable original features — “Lady and the Tramp,” “Togo,” “Noelle,” and “Stargirl” — are all being submitted for Outstanding TV Movie.
As obvious as it may sound, the way to fix the TV Movie category is by actually submitting TV movies. If that means the TV Academy introduces a new category to deal with whatever mess continues to burble around most anthology series, so be it. With so many players in the television industry, there’s no lack of eligible contenders that could transform the category into something vibrant and vital, as opposed to a place where one-off postscript episodes and anthology episodes go to die.
For now, the category remains a mess, which is detailed extensively in this week’s episode of “Millions of Screens” with TV Awards Editor Libby Hill, TV Deputy Editor and Critic Ben Travers, and Creative Producer Leo Garcia, where the crew is still analyzing the state of the Emmy nominations race, specifically for TV movies and limited series. In keeping with ongoing social distancing suggestions, this week’s episode was recorded from the comfort of everyone’s respective Los Angeles-area apartments, and we’re again offering viewers a video-version of the podcast, as embedded above.
Stay tuned while the gang broods over the ratings for HBO’s new (gritty) “Perry Mason” series starring Matthew Rhys, plus the an explanation of the most recent bananapants Emmy Awards rule changes offered up by the TV Academy.
“Millions of Screens” is available on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with the crew on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Review the show on iTunes and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the gang address specific issues in upcoming editions of “Millions of Screens.” Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.
This episode of “Millions of Screens” was produced by Leonardo Adrian Garcia.