Minis boost cablers’ self-image

Players insist pricey one-time events pay dividends in other areas

Spurred by the surprise Emmy win of “Taken,” the 2002 alien abduction epic from exec producer Steven Spielberg — and, oh yeah, the continued success of a certain genre hit called “Lost” — Sci Fi Channel executives are trying to tame their expectations for a nomination for “The Triangle.”

The six-hour miniseries about a motley crew of specialists exploring the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle certainly has enough hooks. It’s the brainchild of feature producers Bryan Singer (“X-Men”) and Dean

Devlin (“Independence Day”); it boasts a top-drawer cast including Eric Stoltz and Sam Neill; and there’s been plenty of press buzz about the f/x-laden event’s $22 million budget.

Indeed, “The Triangle” reps the kind of populist fare that will be duking it out across the board for a nomination in the miniseries category.

Alongside entries from longform warhorses HBO (“Elizabeth I”) and PBS (“Bleak House”) will be broader plays like “Triangle,” TNT’s “Into the West,” Lifetime’s “Human Trafficking,” Showtime’s terrorist drama “Sleeper Cell” and FX’s heist hour “Thief.”

At a time when most networks have gotten out of made-fors and miniseries, the remaining players insist the pricey one-time events pay dividends in other areas.

TNT/TBS senior VP of programming Michael Wright justifies the $100 million spent on the production and marketing of “Into the West,” a 12-hour collaboration with Steven Spielberg, in more than a few ways.

“Beyond whatever revenue you can get, you’re extending your brand. ‘Into the West’ is a beautifully made series with Steven behind the wheel and a huge ensemble cast of recognizable faces. That makes a huge statement to viewers about TNT’s stake in high-quality drama,” Wright says.

That’s especially important for a network trying to get into the original programming game. Over at movie cabler AMC, executives have allotted $15 million to team with Robert Duvall on “Broken Trail,” a four-hour Western that Duvall will star in and executive produce this summer. AMC is betting on promotion from the event to drive into its upcoming original programs that, for now, include new episodes of the BBC co-production “Hustle.”

In order to compete with better fare from both cable and broadcast TV, executives also have become more savvy about taking on the cost of a mini.

Devlin was aware of Sci Fi’s ability to execute his wild, effects-laden fantasy. “If you look at what they did with ‘Taken,’ and even ‘Children of Dune’ before that, it proves that you can do feature-level work for television,” Devlin says. “Between those extremely ambitious projects, they’ve really reinvented the miniseries.”

Most programmers tout a tentpole’s “halo effect” on the rest of the network. TNT drew 21 million viewers for the first weekend of “West,” helping frosh drama “The Closer” deliver a record 7 million viewers in its premiere the next day.

What’s more, 30%-40% of the audience that watched that program were not regular TNT viewers, according to Wright. Sci Fi programming chief Mark Stern says “Triangle” also brought in a large percentage of people who don’t normally watch the network. “There’s a really nice afterglow we get from these big miniseries, and you can see it in the overall lift in ratings.”

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