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Limited Series, Limitless Potential

RELATED:Miniseries, Anthologies Fail to Grow Stale

One of the big Emmy Awards storylines was the Television Academy’s move to rename and reposition the 46-year-old Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category to better reflect innovation within the genre.

Considered by many to be a stepchild to the more-prestigious scripted drama series, the miniseries has recently come of age with several star-studded, four-to-six-episode projects that show little resemblance to the stuffy U.K.-produced shows and extravagant historical pieces of years past.

HBO’s drama series Olive Kitteridge, SundanceTV’s espionage thriller The Honorable Woman, FX’s graphic and spooky American Horror Story: Freak Show and ABC’s terrorism-driven American Crime — all of which were nominated for Emmys in the new Outstanding Limited Series category — have helped broaden the miniseries genre and are rivaling traditional TV series for viewers and critical acclaim.


Network executives said a new generation of quality, shortform miniseries and limited series — six- to 10-episode series with a definitive ending, but that can return for future seasons with a new storyline and characters — are also attracting increased interest from both top producers and actors, such as Ryan Murphy and Susan Sarandon, who are looking to develop such projects for the small screen.

“The [miniseries] phenomenon is not new, but what you’re seeing is a renaissance in the way people are embracing the model,” HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo said.

Miniseries have been around for decades as major “television events” that have drawn big numbers for both broadcast and cable networks. Roots — ABC’s landmark 1977 historical miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book — reached more than 140 million viewers over eight episodes. On the cable side, History’s Hatfields & McCoys in 2012 reached a cable-record 13 million viewers over its three episodes.

By the turn of the decade, though, an influx of quality scripted drama series on broadcast, cable and over-the-top services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Instant Video had ushered in what many observers call the second “Golden Age of Television” — mostly overshadowing the minseries genre.

And changing viewing patters — specifically binge viewing — as well as networks’ use of the scripted drama series as a brand-building vehicle, helped to foster that genre’s rise to prominence.

Yet, it’s been the glut of scripted-series content that’s helped spur renewed interest in minseries from both viewers and producers, several network executives said.


As viewers sometimes struggle to catch up with every episode of Game of Thrones or Orange Is The New Black, a two- to four-episode miniseries provides a quick way to watch quality content with a storyline that has a beginning, middle and end, according to Dirk Hoogstra, executive vice president and general manager for History.

“There has been a proliferation of serial dramas and nobody can keep up with them all,” Hoogstra said. (UPDATE: After deadline for this article, A+E Networks promoted Jana Bennett to president and general manager of History, and said Hoogstra was returning to his roots in independent production.)

History has been very busy in the miniseries space, developing projects over the last two years such as the Mark Burnett-directed The Bible and the Adrien Brody-starrer Houdini.

“There’s something appealing about knowing that they will get the entire story in a few hours, and then it’s over,” added Hoogstra.

Spike this July used the genre to reintroduce original scripted fare to its lineup with Tut. The three-part series averaged more than 2.2 million viewers across consecutive nights from July 19-21 — more than double the network’s primetime average, according to Spike officials.

And Tut’s big-event nature brought in new viewers — more than one-third of its audience consisted of first-time Spike watchers, executive vice president of original series Sharon Levy said. Further, Tut generated repeat viewership in its core 18-49 audience, showing a 150% increase in live-plus-seven-day viewing compared to live viewing within the demo, Levy said.

“It’s as close to binge-viewing as we can get for our viewers,” said Levy, adding Spike will continue to look for miniseries opportunities as it rolls out several traditional scripted dramas in 2016.

Another draw for Tut was the casting of film star Sir Ben Kingsley in a major role. Miniseries and limited series provide opportunities to attract big-name actors and directors who are interested in television, but don’t want to commit to a longterm project, executives said.

Lifetime was able to secure the services of Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon for its two-night miniseries, The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe, because the project required a short-term commitment, senior vice president of original movies Tanya Lopez said.

“A six-hour or four-hour project better fits into their schedule than trying to get someone to commit to 10 hours or a show over several years,” she said. “It enables you to get talent you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to get.”

HBO president of programming Michael Lombardo said he’s taking calls from a number of film-industry players looking to develop limited series. For instance, True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto had a vision for a show that made sense for a limited amount of episodes, rather than multiple seasons, he said.

“What you’re seeing is that there is a place for talent to do a kind of show that should be told in longform, but not over multiple years,” Lombardo said. “You can find an audience for that.”

Indeed, True Detective found an audience and critical acclaim right out of the box.

The limited series was nominated for 12 Emmys in 2014 for its freshman campaign, which featured Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as detectives pursuing a serial killer.

A second season of True Detective featured a new ensemble cast, led by Colin Farrell, and a completely different storyline from the first season.

FX has taken full advantage of the format with its Ryan Murphy-penned American Horror Story franchise — Hotel, its fifth installment, is set to launch next month — as well as Fargo, last year’s Emmy miniseries winner.

“What we we’re finding was that people were coming in with really great stories, but they could not be sustained over a long period of time,” FX Networks and Productions president of original programming Eric Schrier said. “You get writers and directors that wouldn’t normally play in the television sandbox that are finding it to be a very vibrant place to tell stories that you don’t have to stretch over seven years.”

And unlike a traditional TV series, where multiple writers pen various episodes, the limited-series format gives one writer a chance to thoroughly explore a singular creative vision, Lombardo said.

“The thing that you can do in eight hours that you can’t do in eight years is hand-craft [a series],” he said. “When you’re doing eight hours, that person is writing all eight episodes and sometimes directing them. It lends itself much easier to a passion-driven piece of programming, and that’s what the audiences are responding to.”

The recent development and success of limited series, which also includes Starz’s The Missing, has forced changes in the way the industry views drama series — and in how it rewards them for success.

The Television Academy earlier this year redefined its definition of the miniseries category. The move was prompted by HBO’s 2014 submission of True Detective as a drama series — after FX had campaigned to get American Horror Story a place in that category for years — even though the show technically had a limited number of episodes and a closed-ended storyline.

The new Emmy category, Outstanding Limited Series, defines a limited series as a non-recurring story of two or more episodes totaling 150 minutes of run time, with no recurring characters.

While the limited series has worked for HBO, Lombardo says the network is still committed to traditional series like Game of Thrones.

“There’s nothing more exciting than when a series connects and you can bring back those characters the following year an grow and audience and dig into stories and characters over multiple years,” he said. “But not every story has to be that to be great television.”


Several networks will test that notion with a number of miniseries and limited-series projects in development. BET, coming off of its February miniseries Book of Negroes, is developing a musical-themed miniseries based on the 1980s R&B group New Edition.

FX will spin off American Horror Story into the crime genre next year with American Crime Story: The People v. O.J Simpson, according to Schrier.

HBO is working on several shows in the genre, including The Young Pope, a Jude Law-Diane Keaton vehicle, and Crime, an eightpart miniseries starring John Turturro. Lombardo also said the network is also exploring a potential limited-series comedy.

In 2016, Lifetime will tackle Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel War and Peace as well as a miniseries based on Agatha Christie’s murder mystery And Then There Were None. It’s imperative for women- targeted Lifetime to offer a diverse lineup of both traditional scripted series and short-form miniseries to compete in an ultra- crowded television environment, Lopez said.

History’s Hoogstra said the network would also remain aggressive in the genre, having already green-lighted a remake of Roots.

The network recently said it has signed Academy Award winners Forrest Whitaker and Anna Paquin to star in the reboot produced by LeVar Burton, star of the 1970s original.

The miniseries genre will continue to blossom as both consumers and networks demand quality programming fare in all forms and lengths, History’s Hoogstra said.

“The are so many amazing stories out there to be told but they couldn’t work as an ongoing series,” he said. “They need to be told, and we have the ability to tell them.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.