Miniseries continue to thrive on cable

Niche nets attract auds with limited-run shows

As TV splinters and evolves into mobisodes and year-round development schedules, it may come as a surprise that an aged format continues to deliver for some networks: the miniseries.

Though they have all but disappeared from broadcast webs, successful minis such as Sci Fi’s Emmy-nominated “Tin Man” — whose premiere was ad-supported cable’s top entertainment telecast among adults 25-54 in more than two years, according to Nielsen Media Research — have cast doubt on reports of the genre’s demise.

“I think cable television has saved the miniseries,” says Sci Fi exec VP of original programming Mark Stern. “It has become a place for us to develop unique content that really attracts an audience that wants to spend more in-depth time with a story and that might not make the same kind of financial sense for a broadcast network anymore. But for us, there is a lot of upside that involves finances and prestige.”

These days, numerous weekly dramas and comedies, from AMC’s “Breaking Bad” to HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” are getting small annual orders. So perhaps it’s no surprise that “less” is in — as long as the miniseries’ budgets and concepts gel with a network’s overall profile.

“We’re all putting more of our resources into original programming, and that includes the miniseries,” says Bob DeBitetto, president and g.m. of A&E Network, whose “The Andromeda Strain” earned an Emmy nom.

Stern agrees with this approach.

“You want to have something that reflects and fits with your channel,” he says. “And the truth is that — whether it’s a series like ‘Battlestar Galactica’ or a miniseries like ‘Tin Man,’ it’s easier to keep the quality higher if you can control the length a little bit.”

Still, prexy Colin Callender of HBO Films (whose “John Adams” leads all programs in Emmy noms this year) cautions that the two formats remain bound by separate viewer expectations and structural goals.

“In a miniseries, you don’t have to resolve a specific issue within 30 minutes or an hour, and there is very clearly a beginning, a middle and an end to the whole story with the last episode,” says Callender.

“Masterpiece” exec producer Rebecca Eaton, which brought the Emmy-nominated “Cranford” to PBS, sees it the same way.

“It’s an ideal way to look at a period in history with more character development and deeper, more detailed storytelling,” Eaton says.

Ultimately, this format — like all forms of television — can’t expect an easy or stable popularity with viewers.

“It’s all part of the cycle,” DeBitetto says. “It seems like there are more miniseries (on cable) … but the only constant thing in television is change.”

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