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The Mini-Series Makes a Maxi-Splash


This season, for the first time, CBS has joined ABC and NBC in developing a programming concept that first took hold with the broadcasting of Roots. "We had never gone into the miniseries before, because we were very fortunate to have a strong weekly series lineup," notes Jim Sirmans, associate director of TV press for CBS Entertainment. "Why preempt M* A *S*H to put on something as chancy as a miniseries? The other networks had less to lose. But now the reason we're doing miniseries is simple: ABC scored so heavily with The Winds of War and The Thorn Birds, we were encouraged."

Between February and May the big three will be presenting the miniseries in force. Among others, there will be NBC's Celebrity, A.D., V Part II, The First Olympics; CBS's Master of the Game and George Washington; and' ABC's The Last Days of Pompeii, all featuring celebrity casts, complicated plots packed with passion and adventure, exotic settings, and broadcast dates that stretch over several nights. The multipart dramas seem here to stay-and each network is betting they'll help win the ratings race.

"The miniseries gives the audience something to look at that they don't see  every day," says Susan Baerwald, vice president for miniseries and novels for television at NBC. "They get people out of their armchairs, take them where they haven't been before."

Along with a captivating newness, a miniseries also has to be relevant to contemporary life. The Last Days of Pompeii "deals with the eternal verities: love, hate, passion, revenge," says scriptwriter Carmen Culver, "but there are much more specific links. For instance, in the story Franco Nero plays an evil high priest trying to get hold of girls and make them slaves of the cult of Isis. When I was writing the script, the papers were full of stories of young people leaving their homes to go and join various religious groups." Director Peter Hunt is more blunt: "It's Peyton Place in Pompeii."

Birth of a Notion

Inspired by television in Britain, where classic novels (The Mayor of Casterbridge, Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair) and contemporary fiction (Clouds of Witness, The Glittering Prizes) are frequently adapted to 6- to 12-hour shows rather than the 2-hour format popular on U.S. networks, the miniseries first appeared on public television in the United States. But it was not until 1977 that the major networks took notice of the form.

That was when ABC showed Roots, the multi-generational saga of black American history based on the book by Alex Haley. Broadcast in 12 hours over eight consecutive nights, Roots was a gamble: never before had a network preempted a whole week for one-show. If the program bombed the first night, the entire week's schedule would fail. But the gamble paid off: Roots was the highest-rated series ever (each episode ranked among the 13 highest-rated programs of all time). Some 130 million viewers watched the eight installments, and its success propelled then thirdplace ABC into the top spot over CBS and NBC.

Six years later, all three networks are using miniseries in their constant ratings war against each other and against the threat of cable television. But they are paying the price, for high scores in the ratings mean heavy investments. "They cost a lot to make," remarks Erin Dittman of Alan Landsburg Productions, which coproduced last fall's Kennedy miniseries. "The producers of Shogun paid a lot of money Japanese government to film· on location. When regular TV movies need location work, they usually) go to Texas."

Besides upping the costs for non-studio work, locations can present other problems as well. On NBC's Marco Polo, for instance, the cast and crew spoke eight different languages: English, Italian, "French, Arabic, Berber, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese dialects), Mongolian, and Japanese. "To communicate something to a Mongolian actor," star Ken Marshall recalls, "the message would sometimes have to go from English to Italian to Chinese to Mongolian-and back again."

But the results are usually worth the effort. In a recent competition between two theatrical-release films on television and a mini, the mini won handily. "Feature films are not doing as well as they used to on the networks," says Susan Baerwald. "Heaven Can Wait, The Cannonball Run –  a lot of money was paid at one time for these movies. But they're not drawing huge audiences because of previous exposure on cable. Miniseries draw big ratings because people are looking for new product."

The Shape Of Things To Come

"The miniseries is an obvious move for cable to make," notes Tom Aldredge, an actor who appeared in the PBS miniseries The Adams Chronicles. Adds Ron Abbott, an independent TV and theatrical producer, "The form makes tremendous sense. Something like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (a miniseries shown on PBS based on the novel by John Le Carre) is the epitome of the form. You can't do the book justice in a two-hour film. But in six hours you can get all the story points and characters that the book had. It allows the actors to create something in depth."

"The danger, " remarks Tom Aldredge, "is that the form can indulge itself in extraneous detail: The series can be stretched out too much. The Winds of War could very easily have been told in a one-hour film."

In a miniseries, characters are important, but the story is even more crucial. "It's got to be compelling," says Susan Baerwald. “It’s got to get you from one night to another. Gloria Vanderbilt, in 1982's Little Gloria, Happy at Last, was a fascinating character" but a portrait of her wouldn't have gotten people to tune in for two nights." What did it was a cliffhanger: would she keep custody of her child or wouldn't she? "It was a universal crisis everyone could relate to," explains Baerwald.

Mini Minuses

Many industry observers feel that minis have a serious drawback. In the past, TV series have made money not on their first runs but in their reruns; the more episodes available, the more profitable the repeats. Minis, with only four to twelve hours of material, are hampered. And so far their rerun ratings have not been promising. Shogun, NBC's Japanese miniseries, did respectably on a second showing, but ABC's biblical-era Masada bombed, sinking the network's whole week.

"That's what scares us about the miniseries," notes Sirmans. "If it fails you are out of a few bucks-and if affects your entire programming schedule because it's on more than one night. They do tend to fall down on second runs, but they still make money. And you can show them all over the world, cut them into movies, sell them on videocassettes. "

Producers of minis are in a Catch-22 situation. Part of the format's appeal is the extensive production schedule, allowing more time for script development and location work. Yet when a miniseries such as The Winds of War is a success, an immediate sequel of the same caliber is difficult to produce.

"It’s hard-to get ,the same actors," notes Baerwald. "And will people remember the story by the time the sequel is ready? Will they care?" Nonetheless, NBC is attempting a follow-up to its successful Jesus of Nazareth called A.D., this time chronicling the events after Jesus' crucifixion, as well as a sequel to last year's sci-fi epic V.

As for the future of the miniseries, Roots producer David L. Wolper has predicted that broadcast TV will eventually become all minis as a way to combat cable. But this seems unlikely, since cable itself is using miniseries as an audience lure. And as Baerwald puts it: "We must be careful that we do not glut the market. The miniseries' main appeal is that they're different. They create an event. If we create too many of them, they'll no longer be special." •