A miniseries (also mini-series), in a serial storytelling medium, is a production which tells a story in a planned limited number of episodes. The exact number is open to interpretation; however, they are usually limited to fewer than a whole season. The term "miniseries" is generally a North American term. Various British television productions dating as far back as the 1950s can technically be labelled as miniseries, though in the UK these are referred to as "serials".
The term "miniseries" is used to refer to a single finite story told in separately broadcast episodes. Before the term was coined, 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.
Several commentators have offered further qualifications. Leslie Halliwell and Philip Purser argue that miniseries tend to "appear in four to six episodes of various lengths", whilst Stuart Cunningham defines them as, "a limited run program of more than two and less than the thirteen-part season or half -season block associated with serial or series programming."
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.".
In North America the format began in 1974 with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's The National Dream, featuring Pierre Berton (which aired from 3 March 1974 to 28 April 1974) and the American Broadcasting Company's QB VII, which starred Anthony Hopkins (and which began on 29 April 1974). 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 twelve 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 twelve-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 Jesus of Nazareth "the best miniseries of all time" and "unparalleled television."
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). The usual length for a comic book miniseries (a story contained in a single issue is termed a one-shot) is anywhere from 2 to 12 issues. 52 is arguably the longest comic book miniseries to have been planned, as it was intended to last for fifty-two weekly issues. The alternative is an ongoing series.
Comic book series intended from the beginning to tell a complete story can become longer still, for example Sandman, which lasted 75 issues; these are not considered miniseries, partly because of their size and partly because no fixed number of issues is announced at the beginning. 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.
A miniseries (also known as mini-series), in a serial storytelling medium, is a production which tells a story in a planned limited number of episodes.