Miniseries Find New Niche After Nets Flee

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Elisabeth Jensen

Special to TelevisionWeek

In 2001, writer and producer Kirk Ellis was nominated for Emmys for his work on two broadcast network miniseries: ABC’s “Anne Frank: The Whole Story” and the same network’s “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”

This year he is nominated as supervising producer (he was also a writer) for TNT’s “Into the West,” a miniseries from DreamWorks Television and Steven Spielberg about the opening of the American frontier. His next project is a six-hour John Adams movie, based on David McCullough’s biography of the nation’s second president, for HBO.

His career trajectory mirrors that of the movie and miniseries business today, which continues to migrate away from broadcasters toward cable. No commercial broadcast network projects even made this year’s nomination list for outstanding made-for-television movie or outstanding miniseries, although noncommercial PBS was nominated in the miniseries category for “Masterpiece Theatre’s” presentation of “Bleak House.”

Last year CBS earned an outstanding miniseries nomination for “Elvis.” For this coming season, CBS has thrown in the towel, as ABC and NBC did before it, and canceled its two-hour Sunday night movie block.

Of the nine nominations in the two categories this year, four went to HBO, continuing a trend of recent years. “HBO is the most exciting place for made-for-TV movies right now,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. “In many ways, the long form for networks serves one major purpose: as fodder for late-night comics,” he quipped, noting ABC’s “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America” movie this past season.

TNT’s “Into the West,” broadcast over six weeks in summer 2005, took home bragging rights this year as the most-nominated program in any category, with 16 nominations, including outstanding miniseries. HBO’s “Elizabeth I,” starring Helen Mirren as the British queen, was second with 13 nominations, while its “Mrs. Harris,” starring Annette Bening as the woman who killed the “Scarsdale Diet Doctor,” tied with the Fox series “24” with 12 nominations.

Mr. Ellis said he has thought for some time that “television, rather than feature film, is the ultimate destination” for stories and material “that has some dramatic and social heft.” Cable’s supplanting of the networks in that role, he said, “is really, really good. The nature of what we do in these miniseries and movies really demands an audience that is going to be more selective, where the event doesn’t depend on what your lead-in program is.”

“Into the West,” which cost about $50 million, was watched by more than 81 million viewers, TNT said. About one-third of the viewers, research showed, weren’t traditional TNT viewers, said Michael Wright, senior VP of original programming. “That’s huge for us,” he said. “We hope they come back in the future.”

Some executives have referred to such projects as “tentpoles,” holding up the rest of the schedule. Mr. Wright said he “hates the word,” preferring the analogy of a “lighthouse,” which makes viewers “notice you in a way they might not otherwise. It communicates quality to people; your care and enthusiasm for it says so much about the network and what viewers can expect from the other programming. It becomes a calling card.”

TNT specifically looks for dramas that are “commercially entertaining but smart,” Mr. Wright said, and seeks filmmakers with the same “personal brand,” such as Mr. Spielberg and Ridley and Tony Scott. The Scott brothers are now working on a six-hour adaptation of “The Company,” Robert Littell’s novelistic history of the Cold War-era CIA, which started out as a theatrical but later moved to TNT. Chris O’Donnell, Alfred Molina and Michael Keaton have already been cast.

It’s a complex, sophisticated telling of a slice of history, Mr. Wright noted, which works well in miniseries format.

“On cable you can do a much better job portraying violence and dramatic intensity,” as well as “challenge the audience to follow a very large cast of characters,” Mr. Ellis said. From a writer’s point of view, he added, cable’s looser standards, compared with broadcast, allow much more of an “unfettered approach.” Had “Into the West” aired on a broadcaster, he wouldn’t have been able to “show all the atrocities that happened there,” he said.

By comparison, when “Anne Frank” showed intense scenes of the Frank family at the Auschwitz concentration camp, it pushed the envelope of ABC’s standards and practices, he noted, and ABC decided at the end of the day to run the last hour commercial-free, at considerable cost. “That’s not going to happen anymore,” he said.

In a scenario that has generated some controversy in the made-for-TV movie category, Discovery Channel’s dramatic documentary “The Flight That Fought Back”-the story of United Flight 93, which crashed Sept. 11, 2001, as terrorists and passengers battled for control-is competing against A&E’s “Flight 93,” an entirely dramatized film of the same incident. Emmy rules allow films that are equally drama and nonfiction to choose which category they compete in.

Syracuse University’s Mr. Thompson said that given that the two films are “thick in patriotic subtext,” he would have been surprised if they hadn’t been nominated.

Showtime’s well-received “Sleeper Cell,” nominated in the miniseries category, also tapped into current events. The 10-hour series follows a Muslim FBI agent who goes undercover to penetrate Islamic fundamentalists planning to attack Los Angeles.

PBS has continued to excel in the movie and miniseries arena despite financial setbacks. “Masterpiece Theatre”-the source of many PBS nominations in recent years-airs these days without corporate underwriting support since ExxonMobil ended more than three decades of financial support in 2004. In recent years, that support amounted to close to $10 million annually.

The drop in funds took an immediate toll: The number of weeks of original productions each year was cut by two-thirds.

Just-completed Corporation for Public Broadcasting research showed that “Masterpiece Theatre” remains one of the highest “top of mind” series for public television viewers, noted Margaret Drain, VP of national programs for WGBH-TV, the Boston station responsible for the program. Even though the loss of corporate support meant fewer original productions each season, “Audiences love it and it also attracts members,” Ms. Drain said.

PBS and CPB have now tapped into a special pool of money to keep the program going in the interim until other funds can be found, and the number of weeks of original productions is now up to 24 per year, half what it had been.

The station is redoubling its efforts to find underwriter support, Ms. Drain said. “Why it doesn’t have underwriting is a mystery to us,” she said. But she added, “We haven’t given up. We’ve intensified the energies spent looking for an underwriter.”