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Why Broadcast Networks Killed the Miniseries

Changing sales priorities, plus a crowded field of viewing options and some serious big-screen competition have all played a role

“Roots.” “Shogun.” “Rich Man, Poor Man.” “The Thorn Birds.” “North and South.” “Gulliver’s Travels.” Those classic broadcast network miniseries from the 1970s, '80s and '90s made for marquee television. They were multi-night programming events that drew people to their TVs in numbers unachievable today outside televised sporting events. They won awards for their networks.

And then the networks stopped making them. The last broadcast-network miniseries to receive an Emmy nomination was CBS’ “Elvis” in 2005 — and in 2011, there were so few miniseries in the running on both broadcast and cable networks that the Television Academy surrendered to the inevitable and folded the Outstanding Miniseries category into a newly combined category, Outstanding Miniseries or Movie.

What happened? Are the networks so focused on promoting their regular lineups that they don’t want to divert promotional efforts and money to miniseries programming? Are our entertainment options so diverse that it’s tough to draw viewers to an event presentation on TV?

With the lure of big-screen movie series like “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings” and “The Twilight Saga,” did it become a harder sell to get viewers excited about them on the small screen?

Try all of the above.

“From a business point of view, [the miniseries] is not a great business,” Warren Littlefield, former NBC Entertainment president, says. “The series business is a great business. That’s a business where you make a sample, a pilot, you announce it at the upfronts in May. Then you get paid over the summer for that sample. You take in a tremendous amount of money prior to having to spend it to make the product. Cash flow-wise and as a business, it makes a lot of sense.

Also read: 'Twilight Saga' — the Making of a Bargain Blockbuster

“In the movie-of-the-week and miniseries business, you develop the script, and then you pay for it. It doesn’t have that cash flow. It doesn’t have that sales opportunity. More and more, what networks realized is it’s really about the repeat visit in the habit of the series [viewing].”

Since the miniseries category was introduced to the Emmy competition in 1973, ABC, CBS and NBC have received 90 nominations and won 16 awards. But they haven’t won since ABC’s “Anne Frank” in 2001 — and their total share of the nominations, which topped 60 percent between 1973 and 1999, has been less than 20 percent since 2000. NBC, the dominant network in the miniseries category with 10 wins in its 38-year history, hasn’t been nominated since 1999, when it won nods for “The ‘60s” and “The Temptations.”

Littlefield, who was involved with NBC miniseries like “Shogun,” “Marco Polo,” the Michael Mann-produced “Drug Wars,” “Gulliver’s Travels” and “The '60s” during his network tenure, says viewers also look to regular series now for their event-programming moments.

“The miniseries event was very much a sweeps-driven business,” says Littlefield, who just released the book ‘Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV,’ a wonderfully detailed oral history of his nearly 20-year career at NBC. “We’re reminded each and every May on the broadcast side that events in regular series are what audiences are really attached to –the events that end the seasons, or the big, big milestones for characters. Those are as successful in many cases as any movie miniseries event that you can come up with, because audiences are invested in those shows, those characters.”

And regular network series aren’t the only entertainment properties vying for audiences’ attentions. Hundreds of channels of cable TV series, movie theaters, movies online, books, magazines, the internet, web series, videogames and the entertainment buffet that is the iPad have all made for a fractured market in which companies compete with each other (and even themselves) for audience attention and dollars.

Meanwhile, as the broadcast networks have all but abandoned miniseries programming — and with good reason, as the latest, ABC’s two-night “Titanic” miniseries in April, sunk into the ratings bottom — cable networks are more ready, willing and able to devote their resources to miniseries projects.

HBO, for example, can invest millions of dollars into Emmy-winning miniseries like “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific” and “Mildred Pierce,” because its money comes from subscribers, not advertisers who have to be wooed with potential ratings numbers.

And basic cable networks, like AMC with its 2007 Emmy-winning miniseries “Broken Trail” and Syfy (then Sci-Fi) with the 2003 Emmy winner “Taken,” see the cost of event programming as an investment, to draw in viewers who will see promos for — and potentially become regular viewers of — their regular schedules.

Also read: 'Hatfields & McCoys' Earns Record 13.9M Total Viewers for History

In fact, if there is hope for a resurgence of the miniseries, it lies mostly with the cable networks, who continue to draw big names like Oscar winner Kevin Costner and Oscar nominee Sigourney Weaver for projects like History Channel’s popular “Hatfields & McCoys” and USA’s “Political Animals,” and PBS, which has been nominated for a miniseries Emmy every year since 2004 and was the inaugural winner of the newly-merged miniseries and movie Emmy last year for “Downton Abbey.” (The soapy “Abbey” has switched to the Outstanding Drama Series category for the 2012 Emmy race.)

Upcoming miniseries include ReelzChannel’s adaptation of Ken Follett’s “World Without End;” Lifetime’s “Columbine,” produced by Christine Vachon and Michael De Luca; a miniseries version of “The Exorcist” from “Martha Marcy May Marlene” director Sean Durkin; and History Channel’s “The Bible,” from producer Mark Burnett.

The miniseries might also serve as a sort of deluxe pilot for some networks that want to scope out viewer interest with just a handful of episodes. “Probably more with an international co‑financing structure, you may see more [miniseries],” Littlefield says. “I think you might find more of them as we look to our European counterparts, the way they change it up with, OK, here’s six hours, and it’s an exciting six hours. Then we’ll see what the audience says, and maybe we’ll bring it back.

“The models are being thrown up in the air. Change, and a different way of doing things, is being embraced more and more. That’s good. That’s exciting.”