Longer Length, Reduced Risk?: Mini-series as Pilots

Curator's Note

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.


I kind of don't know what to do with the miniseries anymore. I feel like it's kind of dead (at least on broadcast, cable's still kicking it around a bit), but I also feel like, as you discuss that a miniseries only happens when there's the potential for a full series. And that makes me sad. I like the miniseries, and despite the talk about HBO's shows essentially being seasonal miniseries, I like to keep the event status attached!

But I also like what you've done here, organizationally, with these last three posts. We've from tiny pilot to hidden pilot to BIG PILOT/LONG MOVIE. We've talked about economics, industry, and audience responses, and how that all plays out, and what it may or may not mean.

If we bring it together with Cory and Morgan's posts, which discuss working out kinks and establishing tone (and brand!), what is a pilot then, and how can we evaluate it? 

What did execs see that they thought would work in a pilot, but then burn it off as mid-season filler? What could be done to keep audiences around? The backdoor pilot doesn't work very well, and the miniseries pilot is risky due to time and investment. What's missing then?

 Excellent synthesizing questions, Noel.  I'm grateful to all the wonderful posts this week to bring up all the varying elements of a pilot that can be activated in our evaluations and criticism: genre, brand, format, attempts at pre-testing, etc.  Would it be a cop-out to say that pilots are whatever they need to be? Chimeras with the ability to change drastically after the inital hook of executives/gatekeepers? Just like many elements of the television industry today, they're part of the scramble for buzz, publicity, gaining the favor of tastemakers, and potential ad buyers.  

I almost wrote about the pre-screening of pilots: Glee in May of its first year, all the current pilots on Hulu well in advance of their premiere, and Grimm's ad campaign using twitter reactions to the online pilot.  They all illustrate--along with the miniseries pilot--the attept to leverage pilots as part of a promotional campaign for the series of which it is part.

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