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.
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."
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
George W., editor. British Television Drama in the 1980's. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Muriel, and Suzanne Pingree. The Soap Opera. Beverly Hills,
California: Sage, 1983.
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.
Stephen. "Making Book on TV." Film Comment (New York), November-December,
Halliwell, Leslie, and Peter Purser. Halliwell's Television Companion.
London: Paladin, 1987.
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.
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.
David. "The Far Pavililions." Films and Filming (London),
Tulloch, John. Television Drama: Agency, Audience and Myth.
London: Routledge, 1990.
Francis. Television. London: Century, 1985.
Raymond. Television, Technology and Cultural Form. London:
the Blackstuff; The
Boys of St. Vincent; Brideshead
Day After; The
Forsyte Saga; Holocaust;
The Jewel in
the Crown; Pennies
from Heaven; Rich
Man, Poor Man; The
Singing Detective; The
Six Wives of Henry VIII; The
Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Upstairs,
Women of Brewster Place