A miniseries is distinguished from an ongoing television series, which do not usually have a predetermined number of episodes and may continue for several years. Before the term was coined in the USA in the early 1970s, the ongoing episodic form was always called a "serial", just as a novel appearing in episodes in successive editions of magazines or newspapers is called a serial. In Britain, miniseries are often still referred to as serials.
Several commentators have offered more precise definitions of the term. In Halliwell's Television Companion, Leslie Halliwell and Philip Purser argue that miniseries tend to "appear in four to six episodes of various lengths", while Stuart Cunningham in Textual Innovation in the Australian Historical Mini-series defines a miniseries as, "a limited run program of more than two and less than the 13-part season or half season block associated with serial or series programming." Still, with the proliferation of the format in the 1980s and 90s, television films broadcast over even two or three nights were commonly referred to as miniseries.
In Television: A History, Francis Wheen states, "Both soap operas and primetime series cannot afford to allow their leading characters to develop, since the shows are made with the intention of running indefinitely. In a miniseries on the other hand, there is a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end (as in a conventional play or novel), enabling characters to change, mature, or die as the serial proceeds."
According to Francis Wheen, it was the American success in 1969–1970 of the British 26-episode serial The Forsyte Saga (1967) that made US TV executives realize that finite stories based on novels could be popular and could provide a boost to weekly viewing figures. In North America the form began in the spring of 1974 with the CBC's eight-part serial The National Dream, based on Pierre Berton's novel, and ABC's three-part QB VII, based on the novel by Leon Uris. Following these initial forays, broadcasters used miniseries to bring other books to the screen. Rich Man, Poor Man, based on the novel by Irwin Shaw, was broadcast in 12 one-hour episodes in 1976 by ABC. Alex Haley's Roots in 1977 can fairly be called the first blockbuster success of the format. Its success in the USA was partly due to its schedule: the 12-hour duration was split into eight episodes broadcast on consecutive nights, resulting in a finale with a 71 percent share of the audience and 130 million viewers, which at the time was the highest rated TV program of all time. TV Guide (April 11–17, 1987) called 1977's Jesus of Nazareth "the best miniseries of all time" and "unparalleled television". North and South, the 1985 adaptation of a 1982 novel by John Jakes, remains one of the 10 highest rated miniseries in TV history.
Miniseries were popular through the 1990s on the Big Three television networks, often as big-budget ratings-grabbing efforts scheduled for sweeps months; however, the use of the format declined quickly after approximately 2000 (coinciding with a similar collapse in producing made-for-TV movies) because of budgetary concerns and demands from viewers and the creative community to maintain a steady schedule for regular series. The format has made somewhat of a comeback on cable; History, for example, has had some of its greatest successes with miniseries such as America: The Story of Us, Hatfields & McCoys and The Bible.
Broadcast and cable television networks have since aired programs that are branded as "limited series" or "event series." Several television executives interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter stated that the two aforementioned terms denote programs similar to the miniseries while others claim that the term "miniseries" has negative connotations to the public, having become associated with melodrama-heavy works that were commonly produced under the format.
The term "limited series" came to be adopted in the 2010s by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to refer to television series that are preconceived as being one-season shows with no intention of being renewed for additional seasons, or feature rotating casts and storylines each season, such as American Horror Story, Fargo and True Detective. This makes the self-contained season longer than a miniseries, but shorter than the entire run of the multi-season series. This terminology became relevant for the purpose of categorization of programs for industry awards.
- "Miniseries". Museum of Broadcast Communication. Retrieved March 9, 2015.
- Halliwell, Leslie, and Peter Purser, Halliwell's Television Companion, London: Paladin, 1987
- Cunningham, Stuart. "Textual Innovation in the Australian Historical Mini-series", chapter in Australian Television: Programs, Pleasures and Politics, Sidney: Allen and Unwin, 1989
- Corry, John (January 31, 1986). "Joan Collins In Sins, A Mini-Series". The New York Times. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
- Scott, Tony (October 16, 1992). "Review: NBC Movie of the Week Danielle Steel’s Jewels". Variety. Retrieved March 8, 2015.
- Wheen, Francis; Television: A History, London: Century Publishing, 1985
- Bennett, Mark (August 11, 2007). "John Jakes' journey to New York Times bestseller list included boyhood years in Terre Haute". Tribune-Star. TribStar.com. Retrieved March 9, 2015.
- Thompson, Bill (March 18, 2002). "Bestselling novelist penning saga of fictional Charleston family". The Post and Courier. Excerpted at DePauw.edu. Retrieved January 7, 2010.
- Jones, Mary Ellen (November 30, 1996). "The People's Author: The Life of John Jakes". John Jakes: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Press. p. 3. ISBN 0-313-29530-1. Retrieved January 7, 2010.
- Lacey Rose and Lesley Goldberg. "'Heroes', '24': What's the Difference Between a 'Miniseries,' 'Limited' or 'Event' Series?". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 25, 2015.
- Schneider, Michael (March 9, 2015). "Inside the Emmys' New Rules". TV Guide. pp 8-9.