Nets give life to mini mania

Webs again bullish as limited series gain traction with viewers, DVD buyers

Having gone from maxi to mini to endangered species, the miniseries is making a comeback, even if that requires changing its name.

TNT’s “Into the West” was nearly plowed under by a stampede of negative reviews, but the frontier epic nevertheless bowed to highly respectable ratings. Last summer’s sci-fi hit, “The 4400,” has returned as a full-blown series on USA.

ABC, meanwhile, will soon travel the “Gladiator” route with “Empire” — a journey back to toga-ville, not de Tocqueville, jumping the gun on HBO’s upcoming drama “Rome.”

Despite a stormy creative road that pared the production from eight hours to six, what survives is actually quite lavish, with an orgy scene so carefully photographed even smut crusaders will have to strain to discern precisely what offends them.

Thinking back to TV’s version of ancient history — you know, before “The Real World” — miniseries were sometimes referred to as “novels for television,” tackling subjects of grand scale and dimension. From “QB VII” to “Roots” to “Rich Man, Poor Man,” “Eleanor and Franklin” to “Shogun” to “North and South,” the format not only delivered huge ratings but some of the best and brightest moments TV has witnessed.

At some point, though, the TV gods deemed that miniseries were too big, too costly for our jaded, fast-paced times. Audiences couldn’t be counted upon to carve out three or more successive nights for such showcases, leading virtually all “miniseries” to essentially become two-part movies.

Even squeezed into that package, the genre thrived, as NBC (frequently with producer Robert Halmi Sr.,) scored blockbuster ratings with mythological fare like “Gulliver’s Travels” and “The Odyssey.”

Lately, the multiple-parter has gained traction under the label “limited series,” meant to imply that these are really short-order series that could be extended in success. (Never mind that the aforementioned “Roots,” “Rich Man” and “Eleanor and Franklin” all spawned sequels; dammit, someone coined the term, now we have to use it.)

For years, the notion of limited series has been appealing if networks could get the economics to work. After all, ABC’s 1990 series “Twin Peaks” would have been a highly satisfying event had it wrapped up “Who killed Laura Palmer?” after eight hours, instead of stretching into a second season that only the hardiest of viewers were inclined to endure.

Several factors have conspired to make the form more viable.

DVDs let consumers undertake such commitments on their schedule, not the network’s, which is fine so long as the broadcaster can capture a share of the revenue. Technology can thus be a blessing to ventures like HBO’s “Band of Brothers” or “Angels in America,” among the boldest forays into that arena in years.

In addition, so-called reality shows unfold much like limited series — telling a “story” in which someone loses weight, gets the girl or wins the job at the end of eight, 10 or 13 weeks. In that sense, the genre has paved the way for short-term viewing experiences, as opposed to feeling compelled to replicate every franchise week after week, year after year.

Still, the scripted migration into limited series, like that wagon train on “Into the West,” has suffered setbacks, underscoring how hard it is to manufacture “events” for mass consumption. Nor does it help that programmers have been coy about whether some projects are truly miniseries as opposed to the appetizer preceding the hoped-for entrée to come.

Take NBC’s biblical-themed “Revelations,” which opened to significant tune-in against Fox’s “American Idol” before viewing took an understandable nose-dive. The Devil, it turns out, really is in the details, especially as they apply to the script.

Similarly, it will be interesting to see whether “Into the West” can sustain its debut, since the marketing dollars TNT threw at the launch won’t entice audiences back if their reaction mirrors that of critics. To quote a very old phrase, nothing kills a bad program faster than good promotion.

Yet whatever the fits and starts, it’s encouraging to see programmers think big by toying with varied lengths and unusual venues, from the U.S.’ 19th century to Rome circa 44 B.C. Such risk-taking represents a marked improvement over recent miniseries mired in the apocalyptic, from CBS’ “Category 6: Day of Destruction” to NBC’s earthquake yarn “10.5,” which generated a sequel for next season. On a loftier if not unrelated plane, both NBC and ABC are also working on ambitious 9/11-related projects.

A miniseries can, however, also be a disaster, as CBS discovered in May when it dipped into the Elvis well one time too many — a reminder that this is an era of no guts, no glory, where weighty projects can either augment careers or quickly cast them toward the abyss.

Given that dynamic and the twin Rome-themed productions heading our way, perhaps it’s time execs adopted their own gladiatorial code — introducing series, limited or otherwise, with a pledge of “Hail, viewers: Those who are about to die salute you.”

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