Minis fight in main event

To promote the mob miniseries “The Last Don,” CBS passed out flyers to moviegoers waiting in line at cinemas to see the 25th anniversary rerelease of “The Godfather.”

Tied in to NBC’s “The Odyssey,” Simon & Schuster issued a paperback of Homer’s classic, with a sword-bearing Armand Assante on the cover.

Other networks have tried everything from outdoor advertising to shrink-wrapped buses, all in the name of creating a can’t miss event.

With hefty budgets, elaborate production values and star lineups, the big event miniseries has returned to network television, delivering to audiences Trojan Wars and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

As the last bastion of the television mass audience, the webs have tried to curb viewer erosion with productions that feature sweeping production values and elaborate special effects.

In the most recent sweeps, the networks scored impressive numbers, like CBS’s “The Last Don” and NBC’s “The Odyssey.” They followed other successes, such as “Gulliver’s Travels,” “The Beast” and “Asteroid.”

“When you look at audience erosion today, you have to look carefully and ask yourself, ‘What is going on out there?’ and ‘How do we bring more people into the tent?'” said Lindy DeKoven, executive vice president of mini-series and movies for television for NBC. “What you really want to do is create appointment television.”

The nets have filled some of the projects with elaborate special effects (“Titantic” made use of extensive computer generated graphics), motion picture production values and even a handful of thesps normally seen on the big screen, such as Greta Scacchi in “The Odyssey” and Joe Mantegna in “The Last Don.”

The movie-size showmanship will continue next season, when NBC draws on Universal’s stable of monster characters with “The House of Frankenstein.” They also have “Merlin,” about Merlin the Magician, in May; CBS has minis based on the best selling “The Celestine Prophecy” and Ken Follett’s “The Third Twin,”; and ABC has “The Creature,” based on a work by Peter Benchley, author of “Jaws” and “The Beast.”

To be sure, the genre never really disappeared from the networks. But the events were not as plentiful as were adaptations of Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon. And big events like “Scarlett” performed below expectations.

“We have always looked to do event miniseries,” said Joan Harrison, vice president of miniseries for CBS. “But what makes an event has changed. In the past, it has always been a huge book, like ‘War and Remembrance,’ ‘Scarlett,’ and ‘Queen.’ Now you are seeing a lot of sci-fi thrillers.

Cable networks also have invested heavily in the genre for some years, but they do not tie their premieres to the sweeps months. TNT, for instance, has two slated for this summer, when the networks will be filled with repeats: “Rough Riders” and “George Wallace.” But they generally target at a male audience, and their miniseries often feature historical backdrops.

“We have found a niche for ourselves,” says Julie Anne Weitz, executive vice president for original programming for TNT. Last January TNT had “Last Stand at Saber River,” one of the highest rated cable original movies of all time, Weitz says.

“We generally try to steal the moments where nothing else is happening,” she says.

Part of the mission for the networks, however, is to break through the clutter of cable channels, local stations and other networks in an attempt to distinguish themselves and to use the miniseries to promote the rest of the lineup.

“These events really need to rise to the fore and stand out,” Harrison said.

For NBC, a turning point was “Gulliver’s Travels,” which was brought to NBC by producer Robert Halmi. But DeKoven says it was a big risk for the network, as it dealt with a subject matter that may have looked to audiences like a rehash of their grade school English class. “It was probably the biggest risk I have taken since I walked in the door at NBC,” she says. And after the project was picked up for production, “I was a wreck about it. I didn’t have the track record yet. I was basically going by my gut.”

The result: stellar ratings in February 1996, and an Emmy win for best miniseries.

The last network win was for “A Woman Named Jackie” in 1992, and even then some critics mocked the choice because of the project’s subject matter, that of the life of Jackie Kennedy, has been the stuff of tabloid fodder.

And when it comes to sci-fi projects and thrillers, not every miniseries of late is bound for Emmy’s top awards.

NBC’s May 1996 sweeps entry “The Beast”—about a man-eating giant squid— is credited with launching a wave monster thrillers and disaster pics.

The miniseries was promoted to the hilt, benefiting from the exposure on NBC’s Thursday night “Must See TV line up. The big numbers allowed NBC to promote the rest of the lineup.

“You use it as a promotional base,” DeKoven says. “‘The Beast,’ that was wonderful for the sweeps.”

The immediate result: like projects. After “The Beast,” the “Jaws” like story of a creature that terrorizes an island, network executives “were pitched every disaster known to man,” DeKoven says.

NBC scored again with “Asteroid” in February, and the network is so impressed with the results that executive producer John Davis is developing an “Asteroid”-based TV series, spinning off the project’s Federal Emergency Management Agency official at the scenes of disasters each week. And Davis Entertainment also has another miniseries in the works: “Stealth,” about a wing commander who disappears with the Stealth bomber, for Fox’s May sweeps in 1998.

“‘Asteroid’ was our first miniseries,” Davis said. “We don’t bring any preconceptions to TV screens. We only bring a bigger and better mentality.”

But even with the theatrical talent, special effects and big promotions—everything from shrink wrapped buses to outdoor advertising to TV news tie-ins—some miniseries have stumbled. “Titanic,” CBS’ big tentpole for the November sweeps, was a ratings disappointment.

Among the sci-fi projects, NBC’s “Robin Cook’s Invasion” was a misfire last month, in what some execs say may be a sign that the sci-fi genre is running is course. Even with the name power of Jules Verne, ABC’s take on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” performed below expectations.

Others disagree. “Have action movies played themselves out of theaters?” Davis says. He sees a continuation of interest in such projects “as long as you do them well and give audiences something that they haven’t seen before.”

The catchy sci-fi projects notwithstanding, network execs sound the familiar argument that what they are looking for is story and material.

“The Celestine Prophecy,” for example, has been in print for several years before author James Redfield settled on the movie rights. “We talked and talked and talked and he saw the fit,” Harrison says.

But the webs also find themselves in competition with movie producers for some of the high profile lit projects, driving up the cost of rights. CBS, for example, shelled out a whopping $2.1 million for “The Last Don.” But the webs do have an advantage over the feature side: time.

“Mario Puzo felt that it better served the multi-part format,” Harrison said. “There was a reason that there were three ‘Godfathers.’ You cannot delve into that world with one picture.”

The 1980s saw legendary, big scale miniseries like “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” “The Thorn Birds,” “North & South” and “North & South Book II,” only to peter out at the end of the decade. That may be a warning sign for the current return of the form.

“What happens is the miniseries take off and become a big hit, and all of the sudden everyone wants to do them,” says Dan Curtis, producer of “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” “But what happens is everything becomes a miniseries. And all of the sudden the stories are bad and they are making projects that don’t deserve to be a miniseries.

“You just have to do one thing,” he adds. “You just have to make sure that the material is worthy of the hours.”

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