Spielberg's alien abduction mini is longest in TV history

The Sci Fi Channel will know within the next week or so whether “Taken” has soared beyond the earth’s boundaries or burst into flame and crashed on the launch pad.

A $40-million, 20-hour, multi-generational miniseries about alien abduction — and boasting no less than Steven Spielberg as exec producer — “Taken” is the riskiest miniseries ever set in motion by a broadcast or cable network.

Sci Fi says the 20 hours for “Taken” is longer than any other mini in history.

The network doesn’t count the 25-hour 1978-79 “Big Event” “Centennial” because NBC ran the historical epic one hour a week, like a 25-episode TV series. Sci Fi has scheduled “Taken” as a strip, consisting of two hours a night over 10 consecutive weeknights, beginning Dec. 2. On surrounding weekends, Sci Fi will offer a “Taken” marathon to allow viewers to catch up on missed episodes.

If Bonnie Hammer, president and CEO of Sci Fi, is nervous about the network’s audacious programming gamble, she’s not showing it. As a matter of fact, she says, “Taken” is coming along at an appropriate time because the cabler has built momentum in the ratings over the last couple of months.

Sci Fi is in the midst of its best November ever, surging to a 1.0 average primetime rating in cable homes, a 43% increase over the same period a year ago. The 1.0 rating lodges it in tenth place among all basic-cable networks in primetime for the month, a rare distinction for Sci Fi.

And the financial numbers Sci Fi are racking up are out of this world. The network will harvest a record $180 million in ad revenues for 2002, plus a projected $197 million in 2003, according to Kagan World Media.

The money Sci Fi is pocketing from monthly cable-operator license fees is also growing fast, from $102 million in 2001 to $120 million in 2002 to $134 million projected in 2003.

As a result, Sci Fi’s cash flow is expected to engineer a quantum leap, from $107 million in 2002 to $126.6 million in 2003.

These revenues have emboldened Sci Fi to go after more original programming.

A six-hour sequel to “Frank Herbert’s Dune,” which scored the highest-rating in Sci-Fi’s history, is in post-production. Other forthcoming minis include adaptations of Ursula Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” and “Earthsea Trilogy” and “Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars.”

Hammer says Sci Fi plans to commission 22 original movies for 2003, not only a record quota for Sci Fi but more premiere movies in a year than can be found on any other basic-cable network.

The Nov. 16 made-for “Sabretooth” averaged a 2.0 rating in cable homes, the best-rated original movie of the year on Sci Fi.

Another movie premiere, “Tremors III,” did so well last April that Sci Fi commissioned its sister company USA Cable Entertainment to turn it into a weekly series, which premieres Friday, Jan. 10.

Sci Fi has also renewed its highest-rated series ever “Stargate SG-1″ for a seventh season.

And if “Taken” takes off in the ratings this month, Sci Fi may be ready to start giving the USA Network, its older, wealthier and higher-rated sibling, a run for its money.

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