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How to create
a winning miniseries

You need four ingredients to attract big audiences

By Ed Robertson

   Wherever we turn these days there's huge promotion for a TV miniseries, this week with ABC's “Empire" and a month ago when CBS aired "Elvis."
   But for network TV the great era of the miniseries is in fact long past. Their time was the '70s and '80s with mega-productions such as “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “Holocaust,” “Centennial,” “Shogun,” “Lonesome Dove” and of course “Roots.” The miniseries allows for stories of depth and complexity not possible within the confines of the traditional half-hour or hour-long TV series.
   Two things have happened to the miniseries that explain why we are seeing fewer of them on broadcast. First, their huge expense has gotten harder to justify. Before cable, when there were only three networks, a miniseries was sure to pull a huge turnout. People talked about them. That's far from a safe bet these days.
   But the big thing that's happened is that the miniseries has been co-opted as a form of storytelling by the likes of HBO, Showtime and FX. “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” are weekly dramas in one sense but their structures and sheer complexity are really those of the classic miniseries, even if they are not thought of as such. 
   Why do some miniseries bomb and others pull huge ratings? Why did last night's "Empire" only pull 6.4 million total viewers, for example? Did it have the wrong stuff?
   Looking back at the great minis of earlier decades we can discern four characteristics of the successful series. Here's a brief look at each, along with charts of the top minis of all time, and ratings.

High Concept
   Like a blockbuster movie, a TV miniseries is an epic story with larger-than-life characters. The stories that drive most miniseries are based on historical figures (“Into the West,” “Empire”), legendary celebrities (Elvis, Marilyn, Michael Jackson) or top news stories (“Helter Skelter,” “Fatal Vision”).
   The concept also has to be something the networks can hook viewers with in 10 words or less: “How the West was really won.” Or “Roots … the saga of an American family.” Or “Jesus … like you’ve never seen Him before.”

Big Names
   High concept means big budget. And big budget means big talent, or better, big-name talent. By that we usually mean screen actors who don't ordinarily do TV. They're attracted to the project because of the money but also the cachet, the idea of a project that's equivalent to a motion picture role. 
  “Angels in America” drew Oscar winners Al Pacino, Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep, not to mention director Mike Nichols. “Empire Falls” featured Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Ed Harris.
   Robert Mitchum had never done anything of substance on TV until 1983, when he starred in “The Winds of War.”
   In addition to big-name actors, viewers can expect to find big-name writers. Many miniseries are based on best-selling novels, and the novelist’s name is often attached to the project as a selling point (“Stephen King’s ‘The Langoliers,’” “Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’”). 
   The advantages are twofold. Network executives know that an author’s vast readership will almost assuredly tune in, at least for the first episode. And if the production is half decent they'll stay with it. Also, actors who are fans of the author are more likely to sign on for the project.

Strategy
   Miniseries are usually part of a network’s strategy for the television season. Minis are such major undertakings that there has to be a longer-term goal that network executives can hang their expectations on.
   Many minis air during sweeps, and here the goal is obvious: pushing up ratings for the local affiliates.
   For other minis, those airing outside of sweeps, the strategy may be less obvious but it's still there.
  With summer the domain of cable, it made sense for TNT to launch “Into the West” this month instead of last. Also, it makes a big statement about the network's ambition as a destination for original programming, and to media buyers as well as viewers.
   In the late '70s, NBC was trailing CBS and ABC, and it turned to minis, under the umbrella “Best Sellers," to boost its image as a quality network. It still finished the season behind but it accomplished a successful image polishing with the likes of “Captains and the Kings,” “Aspen” and “Once an Eagle.”
   Back in 1977, ABC aired "Roots,” TV’s highest-rated miniseries, and it did so in January to build a strong lead for the midseason. Back then, January signaled the start of what was then known as the second season, and it was a time when networks rolled out high-profile premieres. ABC handily outdid the competition with "Roots" and went on to win the season.

Richard Chamberlain
   The last rule of the mini is to cast Richard Chamberlain or find someone who looks an awful lot like him. He's good luck. Chamberlain has headlined five major minis, more than any other actor, including three of the most successful: “The Thorn Birds,” “Shogun” and “Centennial.”
   Which means that even if a miniseries doesn’t feature Chamberlain, chances are he was approached for it because he has done so many of them.
   Another plus: Chamberlain sat on the panel that selected the top 10 minis of all time for the recent Trio documentary “Epic TV.” 
  Below, in chart one, are Trio's choices for the top 10 minis. In chart two are the 20 top-rated minis of all time.

TOP MINISERIES OF ALL TIME

Rank

MINISERIES

1

Roots (ABC, 1977)

2

Shogun (NBC, 1980)

3

Lonesome Dove (CBS, 1989)

4

The Thorn Birds (ABC, 1983)

5

Brideshead Revisited (PBS, 1981)

6

The Winds of War (ABC, 1983)

7

Holocaust (NBC, 1978)

8

Rich Man, Poor Man (ABC, 1976)

9

From the Earth to the Moon (HBO, 1998)

10

Tales of the City (PBS, 1994)

Source: Trio

 

TOP 20 RANKING OF ALL NETWORK MINI-SERIES TELECAST

Rank

MINISERIES

Date of 1st Episode

No. of Episodes

Household Rating

Share

1

Roots (ABC, 1977)

1/23/77

8

44.9

66

2

The Thorn Birds (ABC, 1983)

3/27/83

4

41.9

59

3

The Winds of War (ABC, 1983)

2/6/83

7

38.6

53

4

Shogun (NBC, 1980)

9/15/80

5

32.6

51

5

How The West Was Won

2/6/77

3

32.5

50

6

Holocaust (NBC, 1978)

4/16/78

4

31.1

49

7

Roots: The Next Generations (ABC, 1979)

2/18/79

7

30.2

35

8

Pearl (ABC, 1978)

11/16/78

3

28.6

45

9

Rich Man, Poor Man (ABC, 1976)

2/1/76

8

27.0

43

10

Master of the Game (CBS, 1984)

2/19/84

3

26.7

39

10

79 Park Avenue (NBC, 1977)

10/16/77

3

26.7

40

12

The Godfather Saga (NBC, 1977)

11/12/77

4

26.5

41

12

Masada (ABC, 1981)

4/5/81

4

26.5

41

14

Scruples (CBS, 1980)

2/25/80

3

26.3

40

15

Lonesome Dove (CBS, 1989)

2/5/89

4

26.2

39

16

North & South (ABC, 1985)

11/3/85

6

26.0

38

17

The Blue and the Gray (CBS, 1982)

11/14/82

3

25.9

39

18

East of Eden (ABC, 1981)

2/8/81

3

25.7

37

19

Roots (ABC, encore presentation of original 1977 miniseries)

9/5/78

5

25.5

42

20

V: The Final Battle (NBC, 1984)

5/6/84

3

25.1

37

Source: Nielsen Media Research

 


June 29, 2005 © 2005 Media Life


--Ed Robertson is a television historian and a regular contributor to Media Life.


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