In 1977, ABC executives made a novel decision: Fearing they had a dud on their hands, they opted to schedule an eight-episode miniseries on consecutive nights to get it off the air before sweeps. Instead of disappearing, "Roots," the multigenerational saga of a black family's experience from the slave ships to the Civil War, stopped the nation in its tracks.
Once the epitome of appointment TV, the miniseries occupies a special place in our cultural history. The genre tackled big topics, from the life of Jesus Christ to slavery to the Holocaust, an ambition that granted it the power to start national conversations. "Shogun," the story of an Englishman in 17th century Japan, has been given some of the credit for popularizing sushi, and "Roots" made Americans examine their collective conscience. Meryl Streep, Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft were just some of the names to grace blockbuster miniseries. And then, as far as mainstream culture was concerned, the genre up and died. Story over.
Dirk Hoogstra might have cause to disagree, however. In May, History, the cable network of which he is senior vice president of development and programming (recently known for reality shows such as "Pawn Stars"), gambled big on a three-night event, its first entry into the scripted world. The production was "Hatfields & McCoys" starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton, and it rewarded History with a network-defining moment to the tune of nearly 14 million viewers over each of the miniseries' consecutive episodes.
"It set the bar really high, and it gave us permission in the industry to do other big projects," Hoogstra said. As for that next big project, those plans were already made -- a miniseries about Vikings.
Largely abandoned by the major networks, the format did resurface after its heyday, notes TV historian Tim Brooks, popping up on cable channels throughout the late '90s and early 2000s. The number of productions had dwindled so much, however, that the TV academy voted last year to merge miniseries and movies into one Emmy category.
The one-two punch of "Hatfields" and the costume drama juggernaut "Downton Abbey," which pulled in 5.4 million viewers for its Season 2 finale in February and has reclaimed widespread cultural relevance for PBS' venerable "Masterpiece" franchise, has people wondering whether they spoke too soon. Ratings such as these have clearly put the miniseries back on the agenda.LIST: 2012 Emmy nominations
What's less clear is, what is a miniseries?
"There's no defining the form anymore," said David Zucker, president of television at Scott Free Productions and an executive producer on A&E's upcoming "Coma," a two-night miniseries based on the classic Robin Cook novel.
Technically a misnomer, miniseries are serials rather than series, a different form of storytelling. For Emmy's purposes, the category is predicated on "a single theme or story line, which is resolved within the piece." Length is less of an issue -- a given show can qualify with just two episodes or 150 program minutes.
Also referred to as "limited series," longer entrants such as USA's current six-episode "Political Animals" border on full-season length by cable's current standards. Determining whether to call a production a miniseries, a limited series or what can be a highly subjective endeavor, sometimes considering how many hours it takes to play out the story.
It can also be shrewd strategy. When the Emmy nominations were recently announced, FX's "American Horror Story" racked up a stunning 17 in the miniseries category, a number tied for most nods with AMC's "Mad Men." By FX's reckoning, "AHS" should be considered a miniseries because producers consider the show an anthology -- plans are to return next season with a different story line and characters as well as a new setting -- and the TV academy agreed.
"Downton Abbey," on the other hand, just got booted from the miniseries category two years into at least a three-year run.
Sometimes, these leopards just change their spots, says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS' "Masterpiece," which airs "Downton" in the U.S. "How could you call it anything but a series at this point?" she asked. "Series 1 was created as a miniseries with fingers crossed, hopes that it could be continued, but you don't know. We've done that often with 'Masterpiece.' "
In the United Kingdom, where "Downton" originated, that sort of ambiguity doesn't even raise eyebrows, said Zucker. "There's a bit of an insistence in our country on making straight and narrow declarations of categories," he noted. "In Europe, the emphasis is on whatever tells the story best."
American television might be moving into European territory. The miniseries' reemergence could be abetted by the well-documented shift in viewing habits -- short runs of programming dovetail nicely with a propensity for marathon binges. But it might also be a de facto consequence of a newfound open-mindedness.
British shows largely range from two to eight hours, fewer even than the 10- to 13-episode seasons that have become commonplace among U.S. cable series. Cut and paste them onto American television, and it's not always immediately apparent exactly what you've got. Take for example not only "Downton" but also BBC America's "Luther" and PBS' "Sherlock," two more competitors for 2012's miniseries Emmy.
"I can see we are driving John Leverence crazy at the [television] academy," said Eaton, who oversees both "Downton" and "Sherlock" for "Masterpiece."
The first major American miniseries was actually born a British subject: PBS imported "The Forsyte Saga" in 1969. Based on a sweeping novel by Nobel Prize-winning author John Galsworthy, the production proved so popular in its native land that pubs and churches across the country blamed it for a downtick in attendance during its Sunday evening broadcasts -- just as Americans reportedly refused to leave their homes during "Shogun's" 1980 run. Leon Uris' "QB VII" in 1974 and "Rich Man, Poor Man," a 1976 12-parter starring Peter Strauss, Nick Nolte and Ed Asner's German accent, consummated this country's love affair with the format. But the 100 million viewers tuning in to the "Roots" finale turned it into a formative experience for a generation.
"I wanted 'Hatfields & McCoys' mentioned in the same sentence as 'Shogun' and 'Roots,' miniseries I grew up with," said Hoogstra. "What [classic miniseries] meant, to me they felt like an event, no matter where you went, that's all anyone was talking about.... That's what I think is cool about these things."
One of the takeaways here is that it didn't take all that long for the genre to become deeply uncool. Brooks notes that today's producers are benefiting from the passage of time. It's taken about two decades "to wash away the bad taste" of bloated late '80s gems such as the 30-hour "War and Remembrance," with 71-year-old Robert Mitchum as the love interest. Nowadays, Brooks says, the trick will be to think epic but keep the production short and sleek.
"The miniseries we had in the '70s and '80s is not back and probably won't be," said Brooks. "Its grandchild is now here."ALSO: