As networks unveil plans for the 2009-10 season, trends beyond "mockumentary comedy" and "’ER’ but with nurses and helicopter pilots" are starting to evolve: specifically, it looks like the miniseries format is making a comeback.
ABC’s "V" will run four episodes in November then take a three-month hiatus. NBC scaled back its sci-fi drama "Day One" from a full series to a miniseries. And AMC’s "Prisoner" remake will make a big splash during fall sweeps, with all six episodes of the Jim Caviezel-Ian McKellan starrer running over three consecutive nights.
It’s an approach that doesn’t come out of nowhere — like most other great ideas had by the TV industry over the past few years, the British had it first. The specific example to consider, in this case, is the BBC series "Torchwood," which broke ratings records on both sides of the pond last July thanks to its five-episode miniseries event, "Children of Earth."
"Torchwood" was born as an adult-themed spin-off of long-running U.K. family favorite "Doctor Who," running originally on the specialty network BBC3 in its first season, then gaining in viewership during its second thanks to a move to BBC2. "Children of Earth," written by series creator Russell T. Davies, serves as a quasi-season 3 for the show, constructed to allow new viewers to engage quickly with the creepy tale of alien invasion and toning down the sexuality while turning up the tension. Which was key, because "Children of Earth" marked "Torchwood"’s promotion to airing on BBC1 — and not just airing there, but taking over the 8 p.m. time slot for an entire week.
In "Children of Earth," the British government finds itself negotiating with a deadly alien force which demands a horrific sacrifice from the nations of the world; its no-holds-barred take on the choices being made transformed a previously lightweight sci-fi series into some of the most challenging drama of the year, with the reviews to match.
Davies said in a roundtable Q&A at the San Diego Comic-Con in July that he approached "Children of Earth" not just as a miniseries, but as a five-episode weeklong event. "in fact, knowing how television stations change their minds, I said right from the beginning that I will only do this if you can guarantee that it’ll be transmitted as we write it; that you won’t change your minds and transmit it weekly," he said. The very story is structured, in fact, to take place over the course of five days, with each episode capturing the events of one day of a particularly awful week for the United Kingdom.
And the impressive thing is that that same success translated perfectly to the U.S. when the series ran, in the same format, on BBC America. According to a press release, it was the cable network’s most successful series ever, delivering an average audience of 705,000 viewers per episode.
Friday’s finale attracted 847,000 viewers, the largest average audience in the channel’s history, and over the week it outperformed the following networks: MSNBC, Animal Planet, Bravo, BET, Travel, Oxygen, Hallmark, TV Land, Soap, MTV, E!, WE, and Headline News.
It’s worth noting, as well, that "Torchwood" isn’t your typical British drama; series star John Barrowman is openly gay and the primary relationship of the show is between his character and another man (who met a sad and controversial end during the series’ fourth installment).
The key to the format, of course, was the idea of creating an event around the show. Event television may be the networks’ only defense against ratings erosion — and the miniseries might be the only way to bring back the idea of Must See TV. People tuned in for "Torchwood: Children of Earth" knowing that if they didn’t watch it as it aired, they’d be behind the next day — and out of sync with the conversation in progress.
Which means this season, between "V," "Day One" and "Prisoner," television fans will have to work harder to keep up, but the conversations will be interesting.