A couple of new TV series that I have been looking forward to seem to be in trouble before their first episodes have even aired. NBC has "downgraded" its apocalyptic show Day One from the originally planned 13 episodes to a four-hour mini-series which will be broadcast after the Winter Olympics. Likewise, production on the highly anticipated ABC remake of V came to a halt and now the premiere will also be a four-hour mini-series in November, but fans will have to wait until Spring 2010 for the remaining episodes to run (if they air at all). You can read about the networks' decisions here and here.
Mini-series used to be big deals for the major television networks, attracting huge audiences and marketed as big events. They would stretch for multiple hours, with a minimum of six. The original V miniseries was a good example of the format in its heyday. Roots, Jesus of Nazareth, I Claudius, Shogun, The Thorn Birds, Lonesome Dove, and others were huge triumphs in the ratings and with critics.
Now the format has virtually disappeared from network television (although cable networks still produce some wonderful epic mini-series, such as Angels in America, From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, and more.)
In England, limited series are the norm, but in the United States, a typical season consists of 22 episodes or more. Usually, networks now order a run of 13 episodes and then add to the order if the show is a hit. By reducing Day One and V to "four-hour mini-series," NBC and ABC are seemingly indicating their doubts about the success of a full run of episodes and using the abbreviated mini-series format to test the waters.
Sometimes limited-run series can be creatively superior than a full 20-plus episode season. But I hope the networks haven't given up on the mega-mini-series.