This summer, USA Network heavily promoted its "limited series event," Political Animals. Although explicitly touted as a mini-series, the paradigms that defined the limited series shifted just enough in the last episode to set the stage for further storytelling and make the previous five episodes seem more like an exceptionally in-depth initiating action to set the narrative chessboard for a series run. Added to this textual strategy, critical reception and industrial news about the show often discussed its chances for pick-up as a regular series. While Political Animals' ratings over the course of its run leave the option of pick-up in question, there remains a history of mini-series-turned-pilots for successful shows that indicates a particular risk-reward logic. USA's track record includes using this strategy for The Starter Wife in 2008 and The 4400 in 2004, but other notable examples include Dallas (1978) and Battlestar Galactica (2003).
What undergirds this approach to television pilots? One reason for framing a pilot as a mini-series is an industrial approach to minimizing risk with the potential for greater reward. Pilots are expensive and often invisible to the majority of the public. They're shown to executives, advertisers, and journalists, but often face rewrites and reshoots before broadcast. But a mini-series is polished and ready for prime-time from the start, ready to be packaged and sold to both advertisers and viewers. In the age of DVD sales and paratextual revenue streams, even if a mini-series is not popular enough to transform into a series, the producers and network can turn a profit from DVDs.
Moreover, in an era of ever-closer linkages between narrative complexity and quality television, mini-series can establish far more exposition than the standard 50-minute pilot. In Battlestar Galactica's miniseries, viewers are privy to almost a dozen characters and their backstories as well as the complex history of war and oppression that would shape the human-cylon war and the series as a whole. The mini-series is narratively packed even at three hours long. From the length and the distance betweeen initial airing and series run, producers can also tweak based on viewer feedback. In BSG, fan-favorite Helo was meant to die on Caprica, but overwhelming fan reaction kept him alive. Character arcs and storylines can be reshaped in the openness of a mini-series-cum-pilot. Mini-series pilots can risk expense for rewards of exposure, profits, and resurrection as full series.