Drama overload cues return of TV mini-series

Viewers are getting fed up with storylines that go on for years and years

Let's say you've managed to keep up with every major US television drama of the past 15 years: 86 episodes of The Sopranos; 60 episodes of The Wire; 192 episodes of 24 (not including the TV movie); 121 episodes of Lost – though perhaps you gave that up halfway through, so let's say 60; 54 episodes of Breaking Bad and counting; 78 of Mad Men; 30 of Game of Thrones. That's more than three weeks of solid TV viewing – before you even get to Homeland or The West Wing.

Viewers are swamped by the excess of quality programming available. However, according to Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Corporation of America and Sony Entertainment, there is a solution: fewer series, more miniseries. Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, Mr Lynton said: "There is a point where people – and it's already happening – are saying 'Enough! Am I really going to devote three, four, five years of my life to another show about another dysfunctional guy doing another thing?'"

That overload, he suggested, will lead to an inevitable decline in the average length of TV series, from cable's 10 to 13 episodes and network drama's 22 to 24. "What's returning is the miniseries," Mr Lynton said. "You saw it with Hatfields & McCoys. And you saw more recent examples where you say to the consumer, 'You don't have to devote five years of your life. You don't even have to devote a year of your life. All of you have to give us is six hours, eight hours.' Great writers and directors will respond even better to a six-hour or eight-hour story arc than they would to committing their life to five years of 13 hours."

It is true that Hatfields & McCoys, a 2012 miniseries commissioned by the History Channel and based on the tale of feuding 19th-century clans, was a success and won several Emmys. The History Channel followed it up this year with its 10-hour The Bible, a surprise hit watched by more than 95 million viewers. The Bible's success recalls that of another biblical TV hit, Jesus of Nazareth, made in the 1970s during a golden era for the miniseries form, which also included the slavery epic Roots. That era came to an end in the US because of spiralling costs, but the miniseries model has proved more resilient in the UK, which produced Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at the end of the 1970s, Edge of Darkness in the 1980s, House of Cards in the 1990s and State of Play in the 2000s.

In the US, the miniseries has been revitalised in part by film-makers disillusioned with Hollywood. In 2011, Todd Haynes, the Oscar-nominated writer and director of Far from Heaven, won praise for his five-part version of Mildred Pierce, with Kate Winslet. Steven Spielberg, producing his third wartime miniseries for HBO, is reportedly developing Stanley Kubrick's passion project Napoleon as a TV miniseries.

On Saturday, British viewers will be treated to the first episode of Top of the Lake, a seven-part crime drama set in New Zealand created by the film director Jane Campion. "I wanted to tell a story that would take about six hours," she told BlackBook magazine. "The novel is probably my favourite form [of storytelling], and the idea of a six-hour series is as close to a novel as I can imagine."

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