As the miniseries format continues to gain traction within the TV programming landscape, some producers, such as Stephen David, the brainchild behind History’s Emmy-nominated docu-drama “The Men Who Built America,” are embracing documentary storytelling within the genre.
Mini-series and documentaries are now a place for experimentation, according to David. Programmers aren’t necessarily looking at miniseries or documentaries in the same way that they used to. “The distinctions between these categories are getting blurrier, and less meaningful, by the day,” he said. Miniseries and docs—or a combination of both—have become “a fertile territory for groundbreaking programming… Meaning you can try anything, especially things you might have only seen in movies up to this point,” he said. The "rules" are all being erased, which makes it an exciting time to be producing any form of television, he said.
Unique to the miniseries format is its “inherent promise” to the audience that it "adds up to something," David said. “So it retains viewers well and it still has the appeal of being event programming, in an era where we can watch whatever we want at any time we want.” But there is a certain risk associated with the miniseries. “There’s the inherent issue with them that they don’t return for season after season,” he said. However, shows like “Downton Abbey” are proving that’s not necessarily true. And when a scripted program like “Hatfields & McCoys” on non-fiction dominant History breaks rating records, “it rewrites the rules.”
Currently, David is working on numerous historical projects for networks such as History, Nat Geo and Discovery Channel, including the scripted “Sons of Liberty” for History. They are scheduled to premiere later this year and in 2014. For these projects his approach is centered around character. “We spend a lot of our time in research asking each other ‘so who was this person, really?’ and ‘who does this person remind you of?’ or ‘What made them tick?’” Indeed, David sees TV programmers pushing the boundaries on audiences’ expectations of a ‘hero character.’ Viewers seem to be attracted to shows that explore these complex characters, he said. In “The Men Who Built America,” for instance, the characters were real, complex people. They expressed “guilt, insecurity, mother/father issues, ambition and dreams…And they all looked into money to solve their inner issues,” he said. “Those are qualities we see in ourselves.”