Shortform programs thrive on cable, public TV

Miniseries and made-fors aren’t MIA — they’re simply fighting on a different front in the TV wars. No longer a network staple as in the 1970s and ’80s, the formats are thriving today on cable and public television, where they’re proving even more valuable in building a brand.

“Generation Kill,” for instance, didn’t need high ratings to accomplish what HBO wanted — reinforcing the pay cabler’s reputation for topical boldness (gritty tale of Iraq War soldiers), budgetary might (sprawling scale on African locations), adult attitude (no-holds-barred content) and top quality (critical raves, awards noms). HBO even scheduled this miniseries from “The Wire’s” David Simon and Ed Burns to run across seven weekly installments, whatever the first-night Nielsens might be.

That’s another brand-building statement: The creative trumps the commercial. The source “Generation Kill” book “breaks nicely into X number of parts, and the journey could be sculpted that way,” says producer Burns. “We did have one more episode — eight scripts. But the people at HBO thought that too many war movies spend a lot of time before you get into battle,” and thus asked Burns & Co. to dump the first hour and jump straight to the story’s soul.

“You have to know your audience,” says Tanya Lopez, senior vice president of original movies at female-targeted Lifetime. “The viewing habit of the Lifetime viewer is that they stick around,” making longform as big a sell there as the channel’s weekly series. Made-for success inspired the spinoff channel Lifetime Movie Network, where, Lopez says, “viewers are not channel surfing at all.”

Yet Lopez notes originals “have to be a big enough event,” whether they’re docudramas like LMN’s recent smash “Capture of the Green River Killer” or Gina Gershon’s four-hour scheming-woman tale “Everything She Ever Wanted,” due in August. Even Memorial Day’s lighthearted two-parter “Maneater” could be positioned as a Lifetime event, thanks to the bestseller it was based on, proven Lifetime star Sarah Chalke (“Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy”) and its strategic promo role in “launching the summer.”

But series are precisely why longforms have been declining on the skein-dependent broadcast webs. “A lot of it has to do with scheduling,” Lopez says of the networks. “Preempting their series that are continuing-advertiser-driven is really difficult for them.” So-so Nielsens for recent two-parters (NBC’s “The Last Templar,” ABC’s “Diamonds”) indicate few viewers look to the nets for longforms anymore, though the price is right (exec producer Robert Halmi Jr.’s international financing approach makes “Templar” and upcoming “Meteor” attractive acquisitions for NBC).

But the active market elsewhere allows program suppliers like the BBC to let production scope be dictated by storytelling needs. “Rome” was greenlighted by BBC Worldwide America executive vice president of programming and production Jane Tranter, back when she was the BBC’s fiction controller. “That kind of historical piece seemed to occupy the preserve of a miniseries,” Tranter admits. But the BBC decided to follow the juicy historical characters like a continuing drama, and “Rome” ran two seasons in the U.S. as a weekly series on production partner HBO’s outlets. Tranter says the format decision “is all about the material, it’s all about the content, it’s all about the story.”

“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” this spring’s BBC-HBO partnership, was originally optioned as a feature, but the source material “was several books, multistranded, and it suited itself more to a series,” Tranter says, making possible multipart filming in Africa.

The BBC’s detective novels adaptation “Wallander” was a May hit for PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!,” airing as three stand-alone made-fors during consecutive weeks, which Tranter considers “a series, with a core group of regular characters who come back.” But “Wallander” couldn’t run as a continuing weekly series because of star Kenneth Branagh’s busy schedule, “so we decided to make it into a kind of series event.” (Conversely, CBS has found Nielsen success scattering reliable TV star Tom Selleck’s six Jesse Stone mystery movies through the past several seasons.)

“Wallander” may be the poster child for today’s minis/made-fors landscape: made in English by the British, yet filmed in Sweden, from Swedish novels, with budget contributions from America and Germany, to air all over the world. ABC’s announced “Ben-Hur” involves partners from a half-dozen countries. HBO’s splashy multiparters are now the exception — distinctly American tales sprawling across weeks or months to encompass the life of “John Adams” or decades of Hollywood’s birth/growth in an upcoming David Chase project.

But as Tranter says, the story’s the thing. “If you start with ‘the deal,’ you’re absolutely stuffed. You have to start with the creative and work out from there, then find (partners) who want to join you on that journey.”

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