TNT ready to ride range with D’Works

2005 oater aims to be 'event of the summer'

NEW YORK — Steven Spielberg is saddling up his first Western, a 12-hour limited series for TNT that will get under way in summer 2004.

The still-untitled series will follow a pair of families, one white and one Native American, whose lives parallel the settlement of the American West in the 19th century.

Spielberg will co-executive produce the project, along with Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey, co-heads of DreamWorks TV, which will produce it for the network. The series will come from an original script by a writer still to be named, and director and cast are not set.

“We’re planning on this limited series to be the entertainment event of the summer” of 2005, said Steve Koonin, executive VP and chief operating officer of TNT and its sister network TBS. Koonin said it’s by far the biggest project ever commissioned by TNT.

Although TNT is also developing traditional scripted series, the network is convinced that it’ll get a bigger halo effect from advertisers, cable operators and viewers by splurging on epics that follow a story over multiple hours and then end on a climactic note.

Even if the Spielberg oater harvests big audiences, TNT and DreamWorks have no plans to keep it in production as a full-fledged series or to revisit it for a one-shot sequel.

Such limited series can be attractive to Spielberg and topline actors who may not want to get locked in to a regular series that could tie them up for five years or more, according to Koonin.

Koonin said TNT deliberately avoided calling the project a miniseries, a designation that has become cheapened by its association with four-hour programs that Nielsen Media Research logs as two-part movies.

Another reason Koonin wants to avoid the miniseries label is that TNT plans to schedule it the way HBO slotted “Band of Brothers,” the DreamWorks/Spielberg multipart epic that the pay cabler treated like a weekly series in the fall of 2001.

By contrast, the Sci Fi Channel made no bones about slapping the miniseries label on the 20-hour DreamWorks/Spielberg “Taken,” running it for two hours every weeknight over two consecutive weeks in December 2002.

A spokesman for Nielsen said the rating service defines a miniseries only as a program that runs in three or more parts. Defining it as a miniseries, the spokesman added, has nothing to do with whether the network runs it every week or on consecutive nights.

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