What is the difference between a miniseries, limited series and event series?
Broadcast networks have traditionally given their shows orders of 22 episodes (or more) per season, which can leave the programs a bit hamstrung creatively. Where a cable drama could fit a season's worth of stories into 10 to 13 tightly written episodes, the network drama has to stretch its storylines over double the amount of airtime.
Consequently, in some cases, the networks have started moving toward a model that is more similar to cable, with shows having shorter seasons than we're used to with broadcast. But this means a lot of new terms are now bandied about regarding network shows that run less than 22 episodes -- and the new terms have even confused some of the network executives.
At the 2014 TCA winter press tour, NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt was asked about the differences between miniseries, event series and limited series, and even he wasn't entirely clear.
Greenblatt ribbed CBS and "Under the Dome" about calling the show an "event series," but then oh no, wait, "now it's coming back for a second season." But he adds in all seriousness, "[ 'American Horror Story'] is a continuing series with the same cast, but they play different characters. That's a limited series with a twist. So we grapple with those kinds of definitions."
Greenblatt's colleague Jennifer Salke provides a little more clarification, adding that "a lot of the limited series are coming through the series department, or we're hearing things that feel like they lend themselves to less than 22 [episodes] but could go on season after season. Miniseries are usually stories or books or based on something that has a very close-ended feel."
Zap2it would like to offer you what we've gleaned as the differences between these new ways of disseminating shows to the viewing public.
The Primetime Emmys defines a miniseries as being more than six hours or in two or more parts. It also must be close-ended. Famous miniseries include "Roots" and "Band of Brothers." Miniseries aren't so much literal "mini series," in that they are small versions of the on-going 22-episode series that networks put on the air, but more like extended TV movies, which is perhaps why they are included in the same awards category as TV movies.
Limited series and miniseries are not interchangeable. Limited series indicates that a network sees potential in a show to continue for many seasons, but the actual seasons themselves needn't be 22 episodes long. It can also refer to a show the network wants to try out in smaller doses with the possibility of renewal based on how well it does in the ratings.
"Under the Dome" is an example of a limited series that worked -- it was never designed to be one season and done, but if the ratings hadn't been there, CBS would not have renewed it. The ratings were good, however, so CBS ordered a second (and still only 13-episode) season. "Killer Women" is an example of a limited series that isn't working. ABC ordered eight episodes, but the ratings are terrible, so it's ending earlier than scheduled and not likely be picked up. But it wasn't intended from the get-go to be a miniseries.
This category seems to be more of a marketing ploy. Any channel can call any show an "event series," but that doesn't mean it's a miniseries and it doesn't mean it can't be renewed.
For example, NBC has called "Rosemary's Baby" an event series, but that's really just a miniseries version of the famous horror movie. The Peacock also called "The Million Second Quiz" an event series, because it was a two-week-long game show that aired over multiple nights each week.
FOX has also called its upcoming "Wayward Pines" an event series, but if the ratings are "Under the Dome"-like, it's a safe bet it will similarly be extended like the CBS drama was last summer.
Greenblatt calls "American Horror Story" a "limited series with a twist." We don't actually think that's true. "AHS" is not a limited series. It was always designed to be a regular series (13 episodes for cable shows is very much the norm) that follows an anthology format -- new characters, new setting, new plots every season, but with more or less the same group of actors. Think of it like a repertory theatre company on TV.
It's also a growing trend: HBO's "True Detective" plans to follow the same format for future seasons, and FX may do the same with its adaptation of "Fargo," which premieres in April.
The wrench "AHS" has thrown in the works is that it enters itself in the Emmys category for miniseries. There are some who believe it should have to be in the same category as regular series, but since each season of "AHS" is a self-contained story, each individual season can be considered a miniseries at the Emmys.
Does this help clear anything up? We hope so, but one thing's for sure -- as long as TV continues churning out so much quality content, we don't really care what the networks call them.