Event Series at TCA: Dig and Ascension add fuel to the “WTF is an Event Series?” fire

USASyfy

The label “event series” has always been a confounding one, more a branding exercise than an actual entity from a production perspective. One does not actually make an “event series”: you make a television series or a miniseries, the former of which is open-ended and could return for more seasons and the latter of which is close-ended and will not.

At today’s NBC Universal press tour day, both USA Network’s Dig and Syfy’s Ascension were labeled as event series, and they have a lot in common otherwise: they’re both six episodes, and they’re both so early in production that there was no episodes available to critics in advance. This created a vacuum of sorts, but out of that vacuum came the news that both Dig and Ascension are hedging their bets on their potential for subsequent seasons, neither willing to accept the notion of a close-ended miniseries end of the event series spectrum.

In the case of Dig, producers Gideon Raff and Tim Kring were there to support this conspiracy show set in Jerusalem and following the FBI investigation of an American citizen murdered and the Da Vinci Code-esque historical conspiracy that the investigation uncovers. And while discussion of Kring’s time on Heroes reinforced that they intend this to be a close-ended narrative, the panelists also consciously positioned it as a franchise, built around Jason Isaacs’ deputy attaché character Peter Connelly being assigned to different embassies in different countries. Raff even noted they had thought about what other locations they might like to take the character, and what kind of stories they imagine for him, laying out the possibility of this morphing into an anthology series anchored by this character.

It was an interesting response, and the show—which plans to film in Jerusalem and focus on the tension between Connelly as an American and his Israeli counterparts in the investigation—itself looks intriguing, but it was also something I never could have told you based on anything that was reported about the series to date. Dig was ordered in May of last year, and there was no mention of this being a potential franchise, and “event series” was deployed as a buzzword with no sense of what it actually meant. It was only after they mapped out the season and came to press tour that it emerged they saw this as a potential ongoing series, which makes one wonder at what stage that decision was made. Was it when they talked with USA? Was it when they went into the writer’s room? Or have Kring and Raff always known this was their plan for this character?

In the case of Ascension, meanwhile, the situation gets even murkier. Unlike Dig, Ascension was consciously labeled a miniseries when it was picked up, with Deadline’s story actively placing it into the same conversation as other Syfy miniseries like 2009’s Alice (the last “real” miniseries Syfy aired). And although Syfy had only a concept marketing trailer that in no way reflects the actual production design or aesthetic of the series—about a group of Americans who were sent into space during the Cold War to travel to a distant planet and save humanity in the case of nuclear holocaust—there seemed to be enough story here to support a full-length series, particularly given that we join the journey at its halfway point (with the ship having lost communication with Earth).

And yet, in part because I remember the trade reports, I was surprised to learn that for the producers this is an ongoing series: when story details were pitched in the room, creator Philip Levens would explain that won’t happen until “year three,” creating a framework to remain in this world well beyond the story that can be told over six episodes. However, this means that Ascension is an event series insofar as it is only ordered for six episodes, not that it won’t continue to follow the same basic narrative patterns as a traditional show. And so NBC Universal is labeled two shows as event series that are likely following wildly different storytelling models if they were to move forward, neither of which fit into the notion of an “event series” as being something close-ended and unlikely to return.

The reasons for this are numerous, I am sure, but at the heart is the notion that television remains a business built around longevity. If you’re making something successful, and it’s making money for the people involved, they want to make more of it. Although shorter orders are now more capable of being monetized through streaming platforms (compared to syndication where a larger number of episodes is necessary), the producers of Dig and Ascension would still rather have the option to make 24 episodes over four seasons than a single six-episode order.

What’s less clear is the logic by which these realities are being obscured. Why wouldn’t Syfy want viewers to know that Ascension has the possibility to run for multiple years? Why wouldn’t USA be interested in making sure audiences know that Peter Connelly could uncover the secrets of another part of the world entirely come 2016? The “Event Series” label may technically be vague enough to encompass a wide range of different styles, but the fact that we as a room had to ask suggests that the term is not clearly communicating what these shows are and how audiences should be approaching them.

Dig will air on USA later this fall, while Ascension will air on Syfy in November.

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