TV Movie Emmy Noms Are Nonsensical This Year — But This Category Has a Long History of Unusual Choices

Think this year’s outstanding TV movie category is a bit weird? It’s always been a category with an identity problem. Flash back for a moment to 1972, the year that the ABC TV movie “Brian’s Song” won five Emmys. “Brian’s Song” is considered one of the seminal TV movies of all time, a tear-jerker starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams about Chicago Bears player Brian Piccolo (Caan), who discovered he had cancer soon after turning pro.

Nominated for 11 Emmys overall, “Brian’s Song” was so popular, and so successful, that it helped put the ABC “Movie of the Week,” as the franchise was called, front and center — cementing the TV movie as a network staple. The “movie of the week” idea was so groundbreaking that the entire industry continued to call TV movies “MOWs” long after ABC had ditched the name.

But there was no TV movie category then, and “Brian’s Song’s” biggest Emmy victory was for “outstanding single program — drama or comedy.” The program bested a now iconic episode of “All in the Family” (“Sammy’s Visit,” wherein Sammy Davis Jr. stops by and kisses Archie Bunker on the cheek, to the audience’s delight); as well as a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” installment; an episode of “Masterpiece Theatre’s” “Elizabeth R”; and one of the BBC’s “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” plays, which, believe it or not, ran on CBS that year.

The next year, the category morphed into “outstanding drama/ comedy special.” It wasn’t until 1992 that it became “outstanding made-for-TV movie,” and yet even that year, confusion reigned: Two of the nominees were two-hour pilots — for ABC’s “Homefront” and NBC’s “I’ll Fly Away.” (NBC’s “Miss Rose White” won that year.)

The real TV movie revolution began in 1993, when HBO won for the first time in the category, via a tie for “Barbarians at the Gate” and “Stalin.” The pay cabler dominated the category until 2015, losing only three times during that period, to ABC (2000), TNT (2003) and PBS (2011).

PBS’ win was another fluke: Due to the virtual disappearance of miniseries in primetime, the TV Academy decided to merge outstanding TV movie and outstanding miniseries into one. At the time, “Downton Abbey” was supposed to be a one-and-done “Masterpiece Theatre” entry, and much to the chagrin of competitors, “Downton” won the category before returning the following year in the drama race.

HBO’s TV movie streak ended for good in 2016, when PBS won for “Sherlock: The Abominable Ride,” followed by three consecutive wins for Netflix’s “Black Mirror.” There was plenty of hand-wringing over the victories for “San Junipero,” “USS Callister” and “Bandersnatch,” as the first two were technically episodes of a full “Black Mirror” season. In an attempt to resolve the problem, the Academy added a 75-minute time requirement for “TV movies,” before ultimately moving anthologies to the limited series field.

The real issue facing the TV movie category now is the lack of what were considered MOWs in the first place. The genre fell out of favor as programmers in both cable and the streaming world embraced limited series — where you can get more return on your investment versus a one-time movie. And now, in the streaming age, it’s harder to tell what was meant to be a TV movie versus a film that was originally intended as a theatrical release but then kicked to a streamer.

This year, there’s a surplus of TV show reunions billed as one-time “movies” (“Ray Donovan: The Movie,” “Reno 911! The Hunt for QAnon” and “Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas”) along with HBO’s “The Survivor” and the first animated film in the category, Disney+’s “Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers.” “The Survivor” was originally theatrical-minded, having premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2021.

It’s a strange year for TV movies. But then again, as history shows, it’s always been a mixed-up category.

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