‘Limited Series’ Gaining Momentum on Cable

Dec 8, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Ask five different cable networks, you’ll hear five different definitions of the term “limited series.” But ask five cable networks if they have one in development, and most will likely say yes.
USA, TNT, FX, HBO, Sci Fi and others have aired or have in development what some call a limited series-a multinight dramatic series announced with a finite number of episodes. Steven Spielberg’s 10-part epics for the Sci Fi Channel (“Taken”) and HBO (“Band of Brothers”) are oft-cited examples of the form.
“I never heard of a `limited series’ with any consistency until two years ago,” said Carrie Stein, head of long-form television packaging for ICM. “Now there are several buyers putting out word they want this kind of form.”
The term “limited series” has been applied to programming as varied as a three-part TV movie to the full first season of a weekly series. Although “Band of Brothers” and “Taken” are retroactively considered premium examples of limited series, both were referred to as miniseries by their networks to maintain categorical clarity for Emmy consideration. (Both won for best miniseries-in 2002 and 2003, respectively.)
One insider said the determining factor for a project being a miniseries vs. a limited series is simply the program’s length-a miniseries is four, sometimes six, hours, whereas a limited series is longer.
Others derided the term as mere marketing semantics.
“I don’t know why they call it a limited series,” groaned a cable network spokesperson responsible for promoting one limited series. “Programmers may feel like `miniseries’ has a negative connotation. In reality, they’re the same thing. `Mini’ and `limited’ mean the same thing. I don’t think the consumer has a clue what the difference is.”
Others surveyed said that, when properly defined, a limited series is a unique and burgeoning form.
Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer of TBS and TNT, offered this definition: “A miniseries is basically a movie that’s too long for one night, whether it’s two, four or six hours,” he said. “What we’re doing with limited series is like HBO is doing with `The Wire’-it has unique characters and story lines every week. It’s episodic and it fits schedules and budgets more like a traditional series.”
In other words, Mr. Koonin takes the term “limited series” literally rather than apply it to lengthy telepics. In this usage, limited series is more like a United Kingdom programming model or a telenovela. In fact, TNT is collaborating with the BBC on the upcoming limited series terrorism thriller “The Grid.” TNT has also inked a deal with Mr. Spielberg to develop an untitled 12-hour limited series about the settling of the American West.
“The way I sold it here was that I said we could attract higher-end talent, be able to create press buzz because it’s something different, and you also have a back-end with DVD,” Mr. Koonin said.
A-list talent, Mr. Koonin explained, tend to be more receptive to a limited series because of the shorter schedule commitment.
Darryl Frank, co-head of DreamWorks Television and co-executive producer of “Taken,” said the content of a limited series tends to be more sweeping subject matter.
“Alien abduction, the history of the West, World War II-this is different subject matter than what you’d normally see [in a miniseries],” Mr. Frank said.
Though CBS had a recent WWII miniseries about Hitler (“Hitler: The Rise of Evil”), the story was essentially about one man-a biopic. “Band of Brothers” is more like “Roots,” a miniseries from an earlier age that also used episodic storytelling in an effort to explore a difficult, sweeping topic.
The advantage of calling such an effort nowadays a limited series instead of a miniseries is that it simply sounds better. While a series is a common effort to draw viewers to a network and miniseries has gained a melodramatic, movie-of-the-week quality, a limited series sounds like an exclusive event. Besides, no matter what networks call the program, they can always make more episodes if it’s wildly successful.
“The idea of miniseries in this day and age feels a little heavy, like a big commitment,” said Ray Solley, a cable programming consultant for The Solley Group. “Whereas if I miss an episode of a limited series, I feel like I’m going to be OK, and [I will] still understand what’s going on.”
One cable programming executive noted that another key advantage is the modest financial commitment.
“For most networks, to commit to 22 episodes is pretty backbreaking,” the executive said. “You can get clobbered if you have an underdelivery. Look at `Skin’-that’s $25 million gone.”
Containing risk may in fact be one reason broadcast networks are suddenly announcing limited series of their own.
NBC prime-time development President Kevin Reilly recently announced an apocalyptic six- to eight-hour limited series based on events prophesied in the Book of Revelations. He agreed the term “miniseries” has become “sort of bloated.”
“We have several [limited series] properties that we’re looking at now,” said Mr. Reilly, who previously served as FX’s entertainment topper. “We may even take some pilots and launch them in that way.”
Mr. Reilly, who claims to be a longtime fan of the form, said his interest in limited series was rebuffed during his first stint at NBC in the mid-1990s.
“I remember getting real resistance from the network-`You can’t schedule this. This is an experiment. People want to watch years of television,”’ he recalled being told. “Television has changed; it’s become much more fluid.”