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And the ‘Band’ played on

Best-seller based series heralded as shift in mini-series might

When “Band of Brothers” premiered on Sept. 9, 2001, cable had never seen anything like it.

The project had a $120 million pricetag, and HBO bowed it at the beginning of the fall season’s network rollout … and two days before the world changed.

First, the money. Chris Albrecht concedes today that HBO had reservations about the tab, but if anyone’s going to make a network topper feel less panicked about cost, it’s exec producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. (Hanks had already produced the Emmy-winning miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” at, comparatively, only $68 million.)

The 10-part series, based on Stephen Ambrose’s bestseller, was heralded as a shift in mini-series might, a transfer of power from network television’s dominance in the genre to cable’s rise as the place to go for original programming — even expensive and long original programming. “Brothers,” inspired by Hanks’ experience on “Saving Private Ryan,” follows a unit of paratroopers from training in Georgia to D-Day to the end of World War II.

Decision to launch in September was not just a counterprogramming move — it was also in response to looming strikes by writers and actors that worried the industry when schedules had to be solidified. HBO knew it could complete production of several “Sex and the City” episodes by July 1 — the actors’ contract deadline — so “Brothers” could take over the 9 p.m. Sunday timeslot.

But nothing tested HBO more than Sept. 11, when coverage of terrorist attacks halted programming from every outlet and instantly changed views about whether entertainment was appropriate.

HBO went ahead, never wavering in its schedule schedule. Bloody or not, gritty or not, mini aired in full. At the time, some wondered if military stories even belonged on television, while others just thought that it wasn’t the time to show dead servicemen. Either way, the network wrestled with scheduling — like every other news and entertainment outlet — but eventually decided to go forth with the subsequent episodes as planned.

“Brothers” went on to win six Emmys, including one for top miniseries.