The miniseries is a singular phenomenon in the television world. It's not quite a movie and not quite a series, but falls somewhere in between. Usually, a miniseries is a sequence of a planned, limited number of episodes in a particular storyline. Most often, miniseries are limited to one full-length season. Occasionally, however, miniseries are shorter special television events, as in the case of Stephen King's Rose Red, which aired in 2002 and consisted of only four episodes. The miniseries has frequently been used as a vehicle for fictional recreation of historical events, but TV miniseries have covered a full range of topics over the years.
Disadvantage: Limited Episodes, Limited Profit?
In general, miniseries are not as ubiquitous or as popular as normal, ongoing TV series are. There could be several reasons for this. From the point of view of production studios, miniseries could be more expensive to produce relative to the amount of money they stand to make. This is because, once a normal series has gotten started, the sets have been built, and the personnel are in place, the show becomes fairly easy and cheap to produce. A miniseries, on the other hand, never reaches this point. Unlike regular series, miniseries are designed to stop at a certain point, so the production studio can't keep cranking out episodes to increase profit.
Disadvantage: Start a Miniseries With Episode One
Another reason miniseries might be less popular than ongoing series is their inability to keep generating bigger audiences. Typically, miniseries are designed to be watched from start to finish, and it's often not as easy to start watching in the middle. Ongoing series, on the other hand, are purposely written in such a way that anyone can start watching any episode and pick up the major plotlines without difficulty. As a result, a normal series can grow in popularity as more and more people start watching it. Miniseries don't have this luxury and will probably attain most of their viewership through pre-series advertising or through DVD sales after the show has aired.
The Miniseries Has its Advantages, Too
Despite the clear reasons that miniseries are not as popular as multi-season shows, several successful miniseries have aired in the past few years. Generation Kill and The 4400 are two well-known examples. These examples also demonstrate that, although there are drawbacks, the miniseries format can have many advantages over traditional series.
Advantage: Better Storylines
One thing that makes miniseries better than ongoing shows is the fact that the main storyline and subplots can be entirely worked out by writers beforehand. Rather than attempting to propel the show forward by artificially creating drama and ongoing plots, a miniseries can have a well-developed story with a traditional narrative structure. In other words, it can have a clear beginning and a clear end, giving it more narrative integrity than many ongoing series manage. In fact, many regular TV serials have been canceled after a few seasons because the storylines became too contrived or repetitive to hold the audience's attention. When a series goes downhill in its later seasons, the decrease in quality has a negative effect on the reputation of the series as a whole. Miniseries do not suffer from this problem, meaning that they often maintain higher overall quality from start to finish.
Advantage: DVD Sales Potential
There are also benefits to the miniseries format from the point of view of production. Although it's common for serial TV shows to be released in DVD bundles, a miniseries can more easily be released as a single DVD package, and because it isn't ongoing, it is more likely to be regarded by audiences as a long movie. Thus, miniseries may have higher DVD sales potential after they have aired.
Advantage: Better Production Means More Viewers
Additionally, there is little incentive for miniseries creators to skimp on production values. Because the miniseries is so short, high production value could translate into higher viewership and higher ratings. While a normal series may be fairly cheaply produced because the ongoing story line propels its ratings, high quality production is to the benefit of a miniseries. Thus, producers, writers, directors, and actors can all create a product that is self contained and that they can be proud of. Though there are drawbacks, the benefits to TV miniseries indicate that this unique form deserves to be more widely used.