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From ‘American Crime’ to ‘Wayward Pines,’ Limited Series Invade Network TV

If you consider that everything runs in cycles, then it was probably inevitable that miniseries would become cool again. If it seems like that particular cycle came around a little faster than anyone might have thought — and that the broadcast networks would so readily buy into the format’s return — then credit is probably due to Ryan Murphy.

A format that began with the broadcast networks and used to be draped in prestige had long ago moved to cable and PBS before Murphy almost singlehandedly revived it again with his Emmy-winning FX series “American Horror Story.” Suddenly, the format was known as “limited series,” or “event television,” terms much better suited to modern viewers who might not be so readily drawn to something as old-fashioned as “miniseries.”

“Ryan was probably the first to do this in the present format,” says Michael McDonald, the executive producer of another event series in the running for this year’s Emmy Awards, ABC’s “American Crime,” as well as a former longtime network executive. “What he did was not actually broadcast television, but it was a broader audience than might be limited to a PBS or an HBO. It definitely had a larger reach.”

What began as an anomaly has turned into a trend, with just about all the broadcast nets moving forward with multiple event series, each with high-powered talent that isn’t necessarily the kind you immediately associate with television. Among the past season’s examples: Uma Thurman and Peter Sarsgaard in NBC’s “The Slap,” “The Bible” sequel “A.D.,” also at NBC, and a short-run revival of “24” — filmed entirely in London — on Fox.

The bar has risen, certainly, and the lines between movies and TV have blurred, but for an established, A-list actor, there’s a big difference between committing to play a character for a few months and doing it for what could potentially be years. The same goes for the writers, directors and producers involved.

Just ask Donald De Line, who has spent his entire career as a studio executive and film producer, but made his TV debut as an exec producer on Fox’s “Wayward Pines.” When he read the Blake Crouch books on which the 10-episode series is based, he knew it was too much for just a two-hour film, so he immediately turned to TV.

“I thought this was so layered and complex, and a story that unfolded naturally over time, it was too much to digest as a movie,” De Line says. “It feels like a series, but not an open-ended one. It’s not episodic, it’s not procedural, it’s serialized. It’s perfectly in that space of six to 10 hours, like one of those old miniseries or the format that cable does so well. It feels like a new form, but it really isn’t, because I grew up watching series like that.”

Limited series offer the opportunity to tell a story over several hours instead of just two. And because of its inherent limitations, it’s also the perfect way for someone whose only experience lies in feature films to dip their proverbial toes into a different medium. Add in the way the movie business has contracted over the past few years and it becomes a no-brainer.

“It’s a great storytelling form, especially for people who haven’t done TV before, to get their feet wet,” De Line says. “As the movie business has shrunk, the TV business went through this great renaissance. I don’t think anyone has this dividing line in their mind anymore. It’s a fluid spectrum.”

Carolyn Bernstein is the executive vice president of scripted programming at Endemol Shine North America, and an executive producer of “Gracepoint,” Fox’s adaptation of the popular ITV series “Broadchurch.” She worked closely with showrunners Dan Futterman and Anya Epstein to develop the series for American television, which was the company’s first foray into the limited series format. It won’t be the last.

“I don’t think we started with a desire to get into the limited series business,” Bernstein says. “The fact that it became a limited series came after conversations with Fox and the other buyers we talked to. We look at brilliant TV series from our sister companies around the world, and if we see something that we fall in love with and think has potential in the U.S., we’ll figure out the smartest way and most creative way to adapt it. We were very proud of the work we did, the work the showrunners did. We’re going to do a lot more of these.”

Part of the appeal for Futterman, aside from drawing talent like Nick Nolte, Jacki Weaver, Anna Gunn and Michael Peña, of course, was the format itself. The opportunity to return to television — he and Epstein oversaw HBO’s “In Treatment” — without an overwhelming time commitment.

“In terms of storytelling, cable outlets — as well as Internet companies, now — have long recognized the value in a shorter form,” he says. “One is able to tell stories with real beginnings and ends; to carry credible emotional arcs over the whole of the series; and, for a show like this one (or ‘True Detective,’ for instance) concentrate on the solving of one case over the course of a single season. When one has 22 episodes to fill, storylines get lost, they peter out, new stories need to be introduced, just to fill the hours.”

For the networks, there are several draws to the format, something that McDonald probably understands better than just about anyone. Though he has moved from the network side to the creative side, he did spend many years as a TV exec and has a unique perspective. Aside from the obvious appeal of drawing bigger-name talent — and for “American Crime,” it was creator John Ridley, a recent Oscar winner for writing “12 Years a Slave,” and such actors as Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton — there is the logistical side.

“You know exactly how many episodes you have, how you need to promote it, when it will be in the schedule, that you can put eight episodes here, or 10 episodes there, or 11 episodes here,” McDonald says. “Logistically it makes sense and it makes it a little bit of an easier piece to schedule. It’s also very good for marketing. It’s still a gamble, but I think the other part of this is that the audience, in the way that they now consume entertainment, is much more inclined to know that there is a beginning, middle and end. If they know how many episodes there are going to be and that there is going to be a satisfying conclusion, they are more apt to commit to the structure.”

With networks, audiences and creators all being of one mind about the format, it’s only natural that it should continue to expand. Having gotten involved in television, De Line, for one, can’t wait to return.

“I read a ton of books anyway, to possibly turn into movies, but now I look at them without any preconception — let the material dictate organically where it will go,” he says. “Is it a great story? And if so, what’s the most effective way to tell it? We’re in a creative business, and we want to tell stories, so this was a godsend. It was a gamechanger for me.”

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