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Miniseries (also mini-series) usually refer to a television program that tells a single story in a limited number of episodes, but may also refer to a similar treatment of a comic book story, although that is more commonly known as a "limited series".
The term "miniseries" is used to refer to a single story told in a limited number of episodes, as opposed to a soap opera or a series of single stories about the same set of characters, which both may run for several years. Before the term was coined in the USA in the late 1970s, such a form was always called a "serial", in the same way that a novel appearing in episodes in successive editions of magazines or newspapers is called a serial. The use of the term "miniseries" is still mainly limited to North America. In Britain the form is still referred to as a "serial".
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", whilst 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." 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) which made US TV executives realize that finite stories based on novels were 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 – April 17, 1987) called 1977's Jesus of Nazareth "the best miniseries of all time" and "unparalleled television".
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. 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.
In British television, the term "miniseries" is almost never used, except in reference to American imports. The term "serial" is preferred for serialised dramas, which have been a staple of UK television schedules since the early 1950s, when serials such as The Quatermass Experiment (1953) established the popularity of the form.
A comic book miniseries (also referred to as a "limited series"), is a commonly used format of comic book distribution, as it allows creators to tell a single specific story focusing on a character or set of characters, whether that story stands alone (Watchmen), or is heavily interlinked with other events in the same fictional universe (Civil War). Most miniseries is anywhere from two to 12 issues (a story contained in a single issue is termed a one-shot; for a time DC Comics used the term "maxi-series" for a 12-issue miniseries, but this term has been abandoned). 52 was arguably the longest comic book miniseries at the time it was released, running for 52 weekly issues (its publisher, DC Comics, has since used the 52-part weekly series structure twice more). A comic series that does not have a planned endpoint—in other words, one which is not a miniseries—is an "ongoing series".
Comic book series intended from the beginning to tell a specific, finite story can become longer still, for example Sandman, which lasted 75 issues, or Cerebus the Aardvark, which ran for 300, a goal creator Dave Sim set for himself fairly early in the series' run, but did not plan from the beginning. These are not considered miniseries, partly because of their sheer size and partly because no fixed number of issues was announced at the outset. Similar to a canceled television series, a series intended to be ongoing, but which is discontinued after a dozen or fewer issues (usually due to poor sales), is not considered a miniseries, though they are sometimes described as such by the publisher after the cancellation is announced.