The COVID-19 pandemic has created a paradox in Hollywood: audiences stuck at home have been streaming more content than ever, but fewer projects are going into production due to stringent and costly safety protocols.
A possible solution to sufficiently feed the need for new programming while keeping productions short and relatively budget-friendly? The still underutilized limited series format—and it could solve even more problems than all of the above.
Once thought of as a relic of yesteryear, the limited series—or miniseries, depending on which generation you belong to—has rapidly shifted back into focus. In fact, it was only six years ago that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences adjusted its Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series category to better accommodate what networks were churning out and solidified the format’s definition as a series with at least two episodes with a total running time of at least 150 program minutes that tells a non-recurring story. In every year since, we’ve seen new limited series that are both ratings magnets and critical darlings: The Queen’s Gambit, The Undoing, Watchmen, Chernobyl, The Night Of, Sharp Objects, When They See Us.
The idea of telling a fully contained story in roughly 10 or less episodes might be an attractive option for networks and studios looking to avoid extensive shoots amid high COVID-19 compliance costs—insurance alone can increase budgets by 10% or more—not to mention the Netflix-era imperative to rapidly generate binge-able hours.
“I think that the debate will be, ‘do we make this movie, or do we make a television show?'” says Paula Landry, a producer and film business and media-marketing consultant. “Because we can make a lot of programming for the same amount of money and what the streamers really want are hours.”
Last year, Netflix had 45% fewer movies that it did in 2010 but nearly 300% more TV shows, according to data compiled by streaming guide Reelgood. That figure may shift slightly with the streamer’s ambitious strategy to release a movie every week in 2021. But the fact remains that streaming services need audiences to watch more content for longer stretches of time. Add to that the persistent uncertainty of when theaters will be open again at full capacity, and Landry sees a scenario where studios increasingly reallocate financing for a mid-budget film, say, to a limited series for a streamer.
“As studios become more reliant on streaming platforms, whether they have their own or they’re licensing their content to somebody else, there’s a need to fill the hours,” Landry says. “And it makes more sense financially to put that kind of time and effort into the quantity of hours that you get from episodic.”
A limited series format could also free networks and studios from the awkward burden of having to cancel a regular series after just one season. Back in October, Netflix caught heat for axing a bevy of shows, most of which were led by women, people of color, or LGBTQ+ focused. Many decry early cancellations as not giving shows enough time to build an audience. But not all premises are necessarily worth the investment of multiple seasons. Streaming services have already pared down the average number of episodes to which networks were once beholden (between 20-22) in order to fill a nine-month season. So maybe it’s time to narrow the scope even further by rethinking what a limited series can do.
Often utilized for historical portraits and dramas, the limited series format has been, well, limited in the number of genres that get the most play. However, one need only to look at British TV to understand how full story arcs can be executed in a handful of episodes across a variety of genres. Take Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag or Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, both quick-witted comedies featuring a dozen episodes over two seasons—comparable to one season of current American TV.
Shorter arcs and smaller budgets are good news for relative newcomers, too. Consider showrunners Michelle Dean and Nick Antosca (The Act), Anna Winger (Unorthodox), or Patrick Somerville (Maniac). In each case, the network or studio was willing to take a bigger artistic risk given the limited financial downside of a self-contained story. Or consider Coel’s other critically acclaimed show I May Destroy You, which over the course of 12 half-hour episodes wove a compelling narrative about sexual trauma and the complexities of consent that one reviewer accurately described as “tonally complicated“—in the best kind of way.
Ultimately, the constraints on production due to the pandemic could (and should) be the ideal time to explore the limited series format further. Gone are the days when it used to mean “this big, cheesy melodrama,” as FX’s chairman John Landgraf so concisely put it. Instead, the limited series has become a powerful vehicle for concise visions. Amid a Peak TV era of increasingly bloated multi-season arcs, there’s something to be said for the less-is-more school of storytelling.