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Miniseries enter major leagues

After discovering its 'Roots', genre constantly reinvents itself with dazzling effects

Kunta Kinte, where have you gone? It’s been more than two decades since the eight-night adaptation of Alex Haley’s novel “Roots” attracted record viewers to the small screen (100 million viewers watched its concluding installment), and the miniseries landscape has changed drastically since 1977.

As Jess Cagle, Newsweek magazine’s west coast senior editor puts it, “When ‘Roots’ came on, night after night, TV viewers tuned in not only because it told a great story, but also because they were drawn to the novelty of the format. That’s why the progression from ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ to ’10th Kingdom’ is a very natural evolution.”

ABC’s historic epic followed the life and times of its African-born hero Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) and received the Emmy for outstanding limited series that year. Although dramas such as “Tom Brown’s Schooldays,” and “Rich Man, Poor Man,” had received similar Emmys in previous years, 1977 was the watershed year during in which American auds were truly introduced to the multi-night dramatic miniseries.

Rise in historical epics

In the decade that followed, a blue-ribbon collection of dramas, such as “Holocaust,” “I, Claudius,” “Shogun,” “Brideshead Revisited,” “The Winds of War,” “Reilly: Ace of Spies” and “The Jewel in the Crown” received both critical attention and nods from the TV Academy. PBS held on to its solid track record with its highbrow British imports, and every once in a while the networks rocked the boat with substantial versions of popular novels, such as “The Thorn Birds” and “Lonesome Dove.”

It wasn’t until 1996, when Hallmark’s lavish, special effects-laden “Gulliver’s Travels,” starring Ted Danson and Mary Steenbergen, breathed new life in the format and opened the door for a new breed of classics-on-steroids. Executive-produced by the larger-than-life Hungarian-born Robert Halmi Sr., “Gulliver” turned out to be the highest-rated mini of the season for NBC.

Quantity dilutes product

“Back then, I had to convince the networks that I could do BBC-like programming but with entertainment,” says Halmi from his office in Manhattan. “Unfortunately today there are way too many miniseries. Every sweeps period you have all these miniseries competing and it’s not really an events program. So now I have to make bigger and better efforts, and to double the costs to create that impact.”

Halmi, who followed the success of “Gulliver,” with the $32 million “The Odyssey,” starring Armand Assante and Vanessa Williams, in May ’97, has reason to be a bit unhappy about the state of things in 2000.

Last February, the 10-hour mini “The 10th Kingdom” got a lukewarm reception, and more recently, its summer repeat got the Peacock web some of its worst ratings in recent memory.

But for every misfire like “Kingdom” or “The Magical Legend of the Leprechauns,” Halmi has been able to come back with a trump card such as NBC’s “Merlin” or ABC’s spectacular “Arabian Nights,” which has earned six Emmy nominations this year. But that doesn’t stop Halmi from being critical of the Emmy voting process.

“Nobody who is a member of the broadcasting industry should be on the board,” says Halmi. “The whole system is unfair. This whole practice of sending out tapes is bullshit. HBO sends out its videotapes in these huge packages, and shows get nominated that nobody even saw.”

And don’t get the producers at PBS started about the tapes. “We don’t have any money to lobby for our programs,” says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of “Mystery!” and “Masterpiece Theatre. “It’s tremendously expensive to send tapes out, and every dime we get goes into production. So the fact that two years ago, we won for ‘Prime Suspect’ and this year Maggie Smith is nominated for ‘David Copperfield,’ shows that they won on their merits alone.”

Cablers get in the act

PBS has seen more competish from cablers with substantial coin such as A&E and TNT in recent years. Last year, A&E took home the best mini Emmy for its seafaring saga “Horatio Hornblower,” and this year, it’s got “P.T. Barnum” under its tent.

“You can say that the multi-partner mini that goes beyond four hours is virtually dead,” says Allen Sabinson, A&E’s senior VP of programming. “And interest is waning in the special effects-driven projects. The glitz gets them in the tent, but it’s the substance that will keep them watching.”

“P.T. Barnum” and “Arabian Nights” will be competing with ABC’s “The Beach Boys: An American Family,” HBO’s drugs-in-the-hood project “The Corner” and the Eye web’s surprise ratings winner “Jesus” on Emmy night, but no matter who goes home with the golden girl this year, TV auds won’t be seeing the last of this popular format.

A&E is in pre-production for a remake of Orson Welles’ classic “The Magnificent Ambersons,” to be directed by Alfonso Arau, PBS will unveil a new version of “Oliver Twist” this fall, and Robert Halmi Sr. is preparing his $80 million new project, “Dinotopia,” a sky’s-the-limit adaptation of James Gurney’s fantasy book, starring David Thewlis and Katie Carr.

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