What is a TV Mini Series?
How is a TV Mini Series different from a novel? (or is it?)
At the end of July, I did a post here on the lack of variety and reruns of TV Series.
My cry was "Where Is Everybody?" -- meaning that the coordinated shutdown of TV series (new and used) meant simply that the cable delivery system is in failure-mode, that audiences have packed up and moved away.
Of course, by September we had new shows gallore vieing for eyeballs, and there is more than I can watch in my sparse and shrinking TV hours. But the point is still valid. Those hiatus weeks never were that barren when there were only 3 channels that broadcast only 5-11 PM.
And of course I know where everybody went. Besides "gaming" -- people are leaving CABLE TV in droves.
What little TV Fiction time anyone has left these days is easily filled by "streaming" services like Netflix, Hulu, Roku, Amazon Instant Video. Both movies and TV Mini Series are available very quickly on streaming services. Those who watch story-format trends indicate that the TV Series episodic format with story-arc is still growing in popularity as people wait for an entire season of shows to go up on Netflix or Amazon or DVD and then watch them all at once.
And now Amazon is making movies, and I know of at least one other Web TV Streaming company planning to leap into the movie business.
One kind of property that lends itself remarkably well to to the TV Mini Series format -- or any video streaming delivery of series like pod casts - is Romance. Romance stories have both built-in suspense lines (will she/ won't she?) and broad relevance to the lives of anyone, any where and any time.
So what is the structure of the TV Mini Series that makes it so suitable to the novel type story?
Have you ever read a novel that is divided into Part I, Part II, Part III ? Or perhaps Book 1, Book 2, Book 3?
Why is that single volume divided instead of being published as three separate items to hold, a trilogy?
The reasons are various, of course, but here is what to watch for as you analyze your favorites:
A) The Parts or Books are so deeply connected you can't read them as stand-alone or separate parts.
B) The Parts or Books are too short for modern distribution to handle commercially as separate units.
C) The Parts or Books are set in different places, about different people, or in separate times.
Then there is the non-fiction TV Mini Series structure. These are usually documentaries, often with some kind of agenda, sometimes political. They try to summarize the history of events, or present new evidence.
Think of the J.F. Kennedy assassination documentaries, or the wonderful compendium of episodes covering World War II which was, as a TV Mini Series titled "Victory At Sea."
There are several DVD parts on Amazon, and it's all available streaming.
There are 16 parts to this one, but Parts 1 to 4 run collectively 1 hour and 47 minutes. These were originally broadcast on TV after being collected from Theater "short subjects" as half hour episodes -- half hour broken by commercials.
The collection tells the story of World War II in the PACIFIC THEATER, not Europe. It's only half the story!
Now think of all the really great biographies you've read. Usually a Biography or Autobiography will cover the entire lifetime of a long-lived person. But somehow the scattered events are collected in threads that display the cause-effect-connection (what I've termed the Because Line in novel structure in previous posts) among events separated by decades.
When you can see the overview of an entire lifetime, all arranged to display the connections, somehow "life" begins to make sense.
In actuality, a life such as Theodore Bikel's is a TV Miniseries more than it is a novel -- there's growing up, there's the war itself, there's being a refugee, there's pursuing an education in Theater in England, there's a Movie and TV Career, there's today which is totally amazing. But taken as a whole, it's not a novel but a T.V. Mini Series.
You can see that periodic yet flowing structure in his autobiography, THEO.
Is a biography or autobiography fiction or non-fiction?
My answer to that is "hybrid" -- to be riveting and revealing, a biography has to have been constructed with the techniques of the fiction writer that I've been harping on in these blog posts. You need to see the entire LIFE as A STORY -- but you also must compose that story out of the selected facts. A biography or autobiography is not a transcription of every word a person said, everything they did from details of getting dressed in the morning to what they ate at every single meal.
No, the story of a life is a STORY that happens to be factual. And as I see it, it can't be a story without ROMANCE.
What does that tell you about fiction? About novels? About romance novels in particular?
We created the novel form from the basic "story" told around campfires -- which were pretty much morality tales and history re-packaged so children would remember it and tell their children. Why do we remember history? Because those who don't are doomed to repeat it.
So a TV Mini Series is a "series" first just as any piece of fiction is a "story" structured just exactly like real life.
We've spent some time this year studying our "real" world -- from politics to religion, and how to mix them - as a means of building fictional worlds that readers can immerse themselves in, feeling as if they are in a real world.
So now we have the hang of building a fictional environment out of the components of reality shared with our readers.
Building a world is a huge task, which is why so many writers get lazy and just use reality. Another popular form now is "Urban Fantasy" -- and again, the writer doesn't have to create anything except the elements that differ from the reader's everyday reality. That also makes it easier for the reader to enter that world -- and it makes it easier to focus the story on the characters and their quirks.
But if you build an entire "world" for a piece of fiction, the only way to make it economical is to recycle it - to use that same set of rules and inventions in other stories.
When you change the STORY but keep the WORLD the same -- you have a series.
Sometimes, as in a biography, the character is the same person at different stages of life, with accumulating experience redirecting decisions and life-policies. An example could be the before and after of a drug addict. Or you might consider the before and after of a single character who has lost an enormous amount of weight (say 150 lbs).
The TV Mini Series structure would then start with the character as a child, perhaps chubby but normally so, do a second episode about the Teen who is in angst and misery gaining weight, a third episode in college with all the rejection and things the overweight person couldn't do leading maybe to an eating disorder, ultra emaciation, then ballooning weight gain. Then an episode about the therapy undergone to address this horrendous problem.
Then ending with an episode about the person attaining a normal weight. And a final episode proving the normal weight was maintained, and summing up what went wrong that caused this weight syndrom, and how fixing what went wrong actually caused other things in that life to go "wrong." All of the "right" and "wrong" of weight issues are value judgements which make dynamite material (I mean explosive!) for fiction because they are so real in life.
Such a TV Mini Series could be focused on ROMANCE -- the deep, committed and fulfilling romantic relationships of an extremely overweight person might be a healthy romantic relationship which would simply not survive the weight-loss efforts because it would be inappropriate to the thinner individual, who might then be miserable with loneliness until some other true-mate came along.
How weight affects the establishment and maintaining of a healthy relationship could be a dynamite theme for a story, but you couldn't cover the nuances in a 90 minute feature film.
A "life" like that has so many phases, each with a theme, each theme related to previous life-themes and generating successive life themes -- and that is the essence of the structure of a TV Mini Series.
Of course today, when you think TV Mini Series, you should think in terms of video delivery, of YouTube video trailers, and Kickstarter funding.
I recently got into a discussion of music in general which triggered a memory of this long-ago TV Series which wasn't a "TV Mini Series" but had a very long run. It was informative, tackled the hottest topics of the day, illuminated issues, and educated viewers. This was so long ago that TV viewers were expected to have an attention span much longer than those who've grown up on Sasame Street.
I remember many of these shows vividly, but not all of them. Mostly I remember the feeling of anticipation, the reveling in the sheer joy of discovery, and most of all the introductory music and image collage.
Remembering the music, I rummaged in my mind for the title of "that old TV Series" -- and after a few days what surfaced was the word OMNIBUS.
But I couldn't remember the moderator, though I do remember how incredibly impressive he was.
So I googled Omnibus TV Series and came to the wikipedia page
that said Alistair Cooke. It's a very short entry but reminded me why the series was so impressive. It won a lot of really hard-to-win awards.
If you are looking for a TV Series on DVD to share with your kids over dinner on Sunday night, try this series.
If you want to study exactly how to put together a non-fiction TV Series that will be remembered for decades, get this DVD.
Now don't forget this is very primitive video because they didn't have much back then, and it's amazing it still exists. It's the material and presentation -- the title, the music, the manner of the moderator, but most of all the "make-the-most-of-limited-means" production.
The production values may look laughable now, but look at how this was funded by grant money -- it was an exceptionally low budget creation that relied wholly on content and elegance of technical execution.
If you are aiming to produce something for YouTube or to write a low-budget movie script, this TV Series is where to start studying how it's done. Penetrating and Memorable.
Here's from the Amazon page. This is not the whole series of shows -- but a Mini Series excerpted.
The People That Fascinated Us
The Places That Defined America
The Golden Age of Television's most distinguished production, Omnibus brought sophistication, refinement and sparkling intelligence to a national audience. Featuring such luminaries as Alistair Cook, Don Hewitt and Richard Leacock, this historic 2-disc collection features fourteen segments (broadcast between the years 1952 to 1960) that examine the iconic people and places that shaped American pop culture and society.
DISC 1 - PEOPLE
1. Philippe Halsman
2. William Faulkner
3. Frank Lloyd Wright
4. Pearl Buck - "My Several Worlds"
5. E.B. White - "A Maine Lobsterman"
6. Sugar Ray Robinson visits Stillman's Gym
7. James Thurber - Man and Boy
8. How the F-100 Got Its Tail
9. Leonard Bernstein's Musical Travelogue
DISC 2 - PLACES
1. The New York Times
2. Toby and the Tall Corn
3. Grand Central: Portrait of a Railroad Terminal
4. Dr. Seuss Explores the Museum that Ought to Be
5. New York's Night People
Also includes 20 page booklet with written contributions by Richard Leacock, Rosemary Thurber, Edgar S. Walsh and the Archive of American Television
I suspect this bottomless well of HISTORY is one big place "everybody went" -- that giant swaths of what used to be "the TV Audience" is now the "Streaming Audience" and people are exploring the wonder of old movies, the wealth of new releases rushed to DVD and streaming, and elegant old TV shows resurrected from the vaults.
If you want to write a TV Mini Series, do something that will be remembered like Omnibus, or Victory At Sea, and encapsulate a slice of the reality of the 2012 world, the 20-teens as it were. What you do may not be valued until decades from now, but when it is, then that will be where "everybody went."
Take for example the TV Mini Series I outlined on the issue of weight. Make the story about Romance in today's world for the overweight woman -- and twenty years from now when a stem-cell genetic fix is available and nobody is overweight any more, your story will be a classic avidly watched on whatever replaces streaming video. What a strange, bizarre, even cruel world we live in today. DOCUMENT IT IN FICTION.
Or maybe a lot sooner than 20 years!
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/magazine/14Biology-t.html a news story about do-it-yourself at-home genetic engineering.