One of the biggest current TV trends is that miniseries and/or limited event series are back. Seriously, they're everywhere: We already knew that Fox was developing a 12-episode extension of 24 and developing M. Night Shyamalan's Wayward Pines, but the network recently announced a U.S. adaptation of the British series Broadchurch, and network president Kevin Reily noted that new series Gang Related won't debut until after the traditional TV season ends—a clear attempt to make it seem like a cable or Under the Dome-like summer event. NBC has apparently ordered every miniseries or event series pitch thrown at it, including a four-hour mini about Hillary Clinton starring Diane Lane; Plymouth, a story about pilgrims; a sequel to The Bible (not an Onion headline); and remakes of Rosemary's Baby and Tommyknockers (because Stephen King). At ABC, network president Paul Lee confirmed that, of the shows it announced during the Upfronts, many of them will run in a limited capacity, including Betrayal, Resurrection, and Once Upon a Time in a
Green Screen Wonderland. Finally, CBS is super high on Under the Dome and has even renewed the summer mega-hit for a second season, plus the network seems committed to running Hostages and Intelligence in shorter, 15-episode blocks in the 2013-2014 season.
Frankly, there are so many reasons why that this is a good idea that I almost can't believe all the broadcast nets are doing it, and at the exact same time. Let's break down why.
The lower the episode count, the better
Networks are calling this... initiative... by lots of different names, sometimes conflating the terms miniseries and limited event series bt random, but typically a miniseries is a one-off, mostly self-contained story like Hatfields & McCoys (don't listen to the Emmys and their assertion that American Horror Story counts as a mini), and a limited event series is something shorter than the normal 22-24 episodes, but with the possibility to return for another round, like the 24 reboot or even Under the Dome (basically, a cable season). This move is clearly in response to the proliferation and increasing dominance of scripted series and event-style programming on cable, which—outside of similar projects ABC Family and MTV—usually air fewer than 15 episodes a season. I'm not opposed to the more traditional 22-episode season; there are a number of shows that continue to make great TV even with a high number of episodes. But the proof is out there: Cable shows, even ones that aren't that serialized or high-concept, like those on USA or TNT, don't have to worry about slowing down story arcs or stalling with filler. Meanwhile, four- to eight-hour miniseries like The Bible prove that writers can get in and get out of the stories they want to tell, without as much pressure as to whether or not they'll get renewed (well, until NBC comes back four months later and says, "Sequel!"). I'd selfishly love to live in a world where every season of Breaking Bad was 25 episodes long, but the constraints of TV production are so grueling that it's challenging to argue against less episodes, no matter the show.
Furthermore, it's obvious that miniseries especially give networks and writers the ability to explore big, compelling ideas that won't work for 50 to 100 episodes. For example, historical stories with beginnings and ends are still worth telling on television; they just don't need drawn out over several years.
It's easy to promote "big" events
Of course, from a network perspective, fewer episodes for one show means it's necessary to fill the schedule with something else (and it's harder to amass enough episodes for syndication). In recent years, dirt-cheap reality programming has often helped fill the resulting void, especially with most networks trying to limit the number of reruns they air, but that hasn't necessarily worked either. Although more miniseries and shorter seasons means that networks will probably have to pick up additional (and ultimately more expensive) projects, the right kind of promotion can help them recoup their costs by turning these projects into true short-term events, especially during the summer. In the best case, the phrase "event series" should have real meaning. Audiences are so used to seeing reality shows, reruns, and burn-offs on the broadcast schedules during the warmer months that anything promoted as a BIG DEAL will actually feel that way.
We have the evidence of this strategy working with CBS and Under the Dome. Sure, it's based on a very popular author's work and has a really fascinating hook, but that's the exact kind of things that smart network marketing folks can use to their advantage in promotional content. CBS* did a great job of pushing Under the Dome as a must-see TV event, and it worked. The ratings started very high and have barely faltered after seven weeks. Now, CBS is better at winning viewers than everyone else, but that doesn't mean Fox won't know how to push 24's return, or that NBC will struggle to get eyes on a Hillary Clinton miniseries. And while ABC and CBS's plans to run limited events in-season with projects like Hostages and Betrayal will be tougher to pull off, both networks have smartly been emphasizing their respective plans since May, which will give at least some viewers an idea of where the shows are going by the time they premiere.
* Full disclosure: TV.com is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS.
It's easier to secure high-profile talent
One of things networks can count on when it comes to drawing viewers is a cast full of household names, the kinds of actors and directors who aren't interested in the 10-month grind that is making a single season of a network television show. It's not the perception that broadcast TV isn't any good (that's not true), or that it doesn't allow for much risk-taking (eh, that's often pretty true); it's that network TV is so restrictive, scheduling-wise. Again, cable's been doing this for ages, but we're already seeing the combination of a shorter episode order and some big names pay off. The Following is dreadful, but Kevin Bacon, Kevin Williamson and a grand total of15 episodes worked very, very well for Fox. It's a setup that's easier to sell to a movie star who isn't interested in being tied down to network TV for most of the year.
With the success of The Following, lots new projects are following suit (PUN ALERT). Diane Lane, Toni Collette, Matt Dillon, and even Kiefer Sutherland probably wouldn't have shown as much interest in the various series mentioned above if they were all 22- or 24-episode offerings, and it's not like the stories would be any better if they were extended to that length. We've already seen how 24 can deteriorate over 24 hours and I don't know about you, but I'm not sure how the premise of Hostages will even survive its scheduled 15 episodes; I can't imagine what tacking on another six hours would do. (Now, I'd totally watch 22 hours of Diane Lane doing anything, but let's not piss off Hillary too much.)
Beyond those three biggies, there are lots of additional reasons why the networks should embrace, or re-embrace, the miniseries and the event series: There are more awards possibilities, especially for shows with big names attached. Heavily marketed events can have a big social media impact. A lower episode count encourages binge-watching. And so on. That's why it's been so frustrating to watch them run away from this kind of programming for so long—especially when cable is stealing so much of the buzz and awards recognition with the exact same approach.
Of course, there's no guarantee that the current projects in development will work out, let alone become Under the Dome-sized hits, and there's something to be said for what can happen when a network decides that something it originally sold as miniseries can work as an ongoing story, like with CBS and Under the Dome. There's always going to be a desire to keep a hit going, no matter how long it is, and that decision can ruin a show creatively (and burn out actors, fans, etc.). But even if projects like Under the Dome or the rebooted 24 do come back for seconds and thirds, I'm certainly more comfortable knowing that there will still be fewer episodes in each season, with a little more production time to plan and less airtime to pad out with dead-end stories.
All told, while we can't totally trust the networks to keep their word, the fact that the broadcasters are trying the miniseries strategy is good news. It'll give them the opportunity to diversify their schedules, create reasons for people to watch live, and appeal to actors who fear the broadcast model. And for the viewers at home, it'll hopefully bring us more interesting television, all over the schedule and all year round.
Do you think broadcast TV's shift toward more miniseries and limited event series is a good idea? Of the projects that've been announced so far, which ones are you most looking forward to?
AIRED ON 4/22/2013
Season 1 : Episode 8