MINISERIES

A miniseries is a narrative drama designed to be broadcast in a limited number of episodes. If the distinction is maintained between "series" (describing a group of self-contained episodes) and "serial" (a group of interconnected episodes), the term "miniseries" is an acknowledged misnomer, for the majority of broadcast material presented in the genre is in fact produced in serial form. There are, of course, exceptions. Boys from the Blackstuff (1982), for example, consisted of five narratively independent, but interlocking, episodes which culminate in a final resolution. The miniseries may also be seen as an extended telefilm divided into episodes. David Shipman provides a useful analysis of this approach and its central question, "When is a movie not a movie?" in his discussion of The Far Pavillions.

Whatever the overall approach, the miniseries, at its best, offers a unique televisual experience, often dealing with harrowing and difficult material structured into an often transformatory narrative. The time lapse between episodes allows occasion for the audience to assimilate, discuss and come to terms with the difficulties of the narrative. The extended narrative time offered by serialisation makes possible the in-depth exploration of characters, their motivations and development, the analysis of situations and events. But the conclusive narrative resolution of the series, also allows for evaluation and reflection. Francis Wheen argues that, "Both soap operas and primetime series (whether Starsky and Hutch or Marcus Welby M.D.) cannot afford to allow their leading characters to develop, since the shows are made with the intention of running indefinitely. In a miniseries on the other hand, there is a clearly defined beginning, a middle and an end, (as in a conventional play or novel) enabling characters to change, mature or die as the serial proceeds. It is for this reason that some television writers who lament the passing of the Golden Age are excited by the possibilities of the miniseries, even if they believe that its potential has not yet been properly exploited."

The actual number of episodes which differentiate a miniseries from a "regular" series or serial is a matter of dispute. Leslie Halliwell and Philip Purser argue in Halliwell's Television Companion that miniseries tend to "appear in four to six episodes of various lengths." whilst Stuart Cunningham defines them as, "a limited run program of more than two and less than the thirteen part season or half season block associated with serial or series programming." From a British perspective the majority of home produced drama would, in the post de-regulation era, now fit into Cunningham's definition. Very few drama productions, apart from continuous serials (soap operas) extend beyond seven episodes.

The term miniseries covers a broad generic range of subjects and styles of narration, which seem to differ from one national broadcast culture to another. Australia produces a large number of historical miniseries, for example Bodyline (1984) and Cowra Breakout (1985) which dramatically document aspects of Australian history. The United States has produced both historical miniseries such as Holocaust (1978) and serialisations of "blockbuster" novels such as The Thorn Birds (1983). Britain tends towards literary classics Pride and Prejudice (1995) and serialisations of "blockbusters," The Dwelling Place (1994).

Francis Wheen suggests that the form developed in the United States due to the success of the imported The Forsyte Saga (1967) which was an expensive adaptation of John Galsworthy's historical epic novel. The success of this serialisation demonstrated that finite stories were popular, that they could provide a boost to weekly viewing figures, and a reputation for exciting programming to the network/channel. The potential of the miniseries was significantly promoted, Wheen suggests, by Roots, which built up an exclusive culture over its eight consecutive nights in January 1977. People who didn't watch the programme felt excluded from the dominant topic of conversation, and from one of the major cultural interventions of the era.

The popularity of such miniseries works against the received wisdom of programming as described by Raymond Williams: "It is clear that both serials and series have advantages for programme planners: a time slot, as it is significantly called, can be filled for a run of weeks, and in their elements of continuity the serial and series encourage attachments to a given station or channel." It is significant that miniseries are generally part of late evening primetime viewing, the space made available for the privileged viewing of "irregular" material, whether it be contemporary feature films, miniseries, or other forms. This scheduling is important because the high production costs of miniseries can only be recovered through exposure to the largest, most lucrative, and attentive audiences and the material dealt with is often of either difficult and potentially upsetting, or of a sexually explicit nature not deemed suitable for children.

Miniseries are usually high capital investment ventures, Stuart Cunningham states that "... the Australian historical mini-series is 'quality', 'event' television. Its status is analogous to that of the 'art cinema', albeit without the financial and promotional marginalisation typically experienced by art cinema. Historical mini-series are produced on regularly record-breaking budgets for television, are accompanied by major promotional campaigns, often as flag carriers leading into new ratings periods, and in turn attract lavish spin-off campaigns and ratings successes, all of which contribute to their placement as 'exceptional' television." It is interesting to note here that in the United States, the ABC network's introduction of the miniseries in 1976 coincided with the arrival of programmer Fred Silverman from CBS and was part of his strategy to revive ailing audience figures. Similarly, Granada's investment in Prime Suspect coincided with the franchise bids in British commercial broadcasting.

The miniseries is invariably based upon the work of an established writer, whether this is a classic literary source (the BBC's 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice), a popular blockbuster, (Shirley Conran's Lace II, 1985), or a renowned television writer (Lynda LaPlante's Prime Suspect, 1991). Institutionally the author's name is seen as a valuable investment, and is often an attempt to guarantee a prestige audience in the "desirable social categories". For the audience the author's name provides a set of expectations of potential pleasures and an indication of production quality. The writer's name, then, is an important part of the packaging of the series. Given the condensed period of broadcasting it is important to attract viewers at the first opportunity, for unlike a continuous serial or seasonal series, the miniseries cannot accrue an audience over an extended period. Authorial identity thus distinguishes the miniseries from the unattributed flow of soap operas, crime series and situation comedies.

 


Miniseries

Charlotte Brunsdon, discussing the literary sources of television fictions, argues that "British culture having a predominantly literary bias, middlebrow literature legitimates the 'vulgar' medium of television (whereas high literature might offend as being too good for TV). Adaptations gain prestige for their literariness." Whilst recognising that producers and broadcasting institutions do intentionally exploit the prestige lent by literary sources, it is difficult to support the term "middlebrow", which is central to this statement, in relation to the miniseries. The authors of miniseries range from the Whitbread Prize winner Jeanette Winterson Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1990) to Jackie Collins' Hollywood Wives (1985), neither of which seem to fit the "middlebrow" category.

One clear link between these two adaptations, however, is their implied autobiographical character. Indeed, the representation of actual lives and experiences is central to a range of miniseries. The approach taken may be autobiographical, as in Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective. It may be biographical, as in Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table (1991), depicting the early life experiences of Janet Frame, or in Central Television's Kennedy (1983) focusing on the life and impact of the U.S. President on the 20th anniversary of his death. Or the approach may present dramatizations enacting significant moments in history, as in the Australian miniseries Vietnam (1987), depicting the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees from the Vietnamese and Australian perspectives or in Alan Bleasdales Boys from the Black Stuff (1982), exploring the experience of working class life in recession hit Liverpool. This relation to "real life" seems to be one of the strengths and appeals of the miniseries.

Since 1976 when the U.S. television network ABC broadcast a 12 hour serialised adaptation of Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man, miniseries have constituted some of the most popular programs in television history. ABC's broadcast of Alex Haley's Roots (1977) over eight consecutive nights in the United States drew an audience of 80 million for the final episode. But miniseries have also provided some of the most derided programming, as evidenced in Richard Corliss's commentary on Princess Daisy (1983): "Not even trash can guarantee the happy ending, and, alas, it happened to Jane Doe: Princess Daisy proved a small screen bust." Conversely, miniseries have often been among the most critically acclaimed of television offerings. The Singing Detective (1986) "was inspiring," according to Joost Hunniger, "because it showed us the dynamic possibilities of television drama."

-Margaret Montgomerie

FURTHER READING

Brandt, George W., editor. British Television Drama in the 1980's. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Cantor, Muriel, and Suzanne Pingree. The Soap Opera. Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1983.

Cunningham, Stuart. "Textual Innovation in the Australian Historical Mini-series." In, Tulloch, John, and Graeme Turner, editors. Australian Television: Programs, Pleasures and Politics. Sydney, Australia; Boston, Massachusetts: Allen and Unwin, 1989.

Farber, Stephen. "Making Book on TV." Film Comment (New York), November-December, 1982.

Halliwell, Leslie, and Peter Purser. Halliwell's Television Companion. London: Paladin, 1987.

Kozloff, Sarah. "Narrative Theory and Television." In, Allen, Robert C., editor. Channels of Discourse Re-Assembled. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Lewallen, Avis. "Lace: Pornography for Women?" In, Marshment, Margaret, and Larraine Gamman, editors. The Female Gaze: Women as Viewers of Popular Culture. London: The Women's Press, 1988.

Shipman, David. "The Far Pavililions." Films and Filming (London), January, 1984.

Tulloch, John. Television Drama: Agency, Audience and Myth. London: Routledge, 1990.

Wheen, Francis. Television. London: Century, 1985.

Williams, Raymond. Television, Technology and Cultural Form. London: Fontana, 1974.

 

See also Amerika; Boys from the Blackstuff; The Boys of St. Vincent; Brideshead Revisited; The Day After; The Forsyte Saga; Holocaust; I, Claudius; The Jewel in the Crown; Pennies from Heaven; Rich Man, Poor Man; The Singing Detective; The Six Wives of Henry VIII; The Thornbirds; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Upstairs, Downstairs; The Women of Brewster Place