Minis go for the long haul

Cablers plot maxi-series to lure auds for weeks

Cablers have forged a powerful weapon over the last few years to hijack more viewers from the broadcast networks: the maxi-miniseries.

One showbiz biggie, Steven Spielberg, has led the way as exec producer of the modern-day maxi-mini, first with the 10-hour World War II saga “Band of Brothers” on HBO in 2001 and then with the 20-hour epic of alien abduction “Taken” on the Sci Fi Channel last year.

While Spielberg is getting the most attention because of his position on the Hollywood totem pole, he’s not the only filmmaker who’s cheerleading for the maxi-mini. Upcoming:

  • Spielberg’s 12-hour Western for TNT that will follow many generations of both a white family and a Native American family throughout the 19th century settlement of the American West.

  • A still hush-hush supernatural melodrama that reteams Spielberg with Sci Fi. It will be written by Leslie Bohem (“Taken”) and will run anywhere from 12 to 18 hours.

  • Martin Scorsese has signed up to produce “The Twelve,” an apocalyptic drama for Sci Fi for 2005 that could run across six nights.

  • Bryan Singer and Dean Devlin are producing an eight-hour Sci Fi mini about the Bermuda Triangle.

  • Stephen King has written the 15-hour “Kingdom Hospital” for ABC, which starts production soon for a February air date.

  • Warner Bros. and the Wolper Organization are still developing a 12-hour adaptation for NBC of the gothic trilogy “The Witching Hour,” by Anne Rice, which the network first announced 14 months ago.

Both ABC and NBC are avoiding the term miniseries for their projects, referring to them as “limited series.” NBC referred to February’s “Kingpin” by this terminology — but then submitted it for Emmy consideration in miniseries categories.

“That’s just a label, having more to do with salesmanship than with artistic foresight,” says Robert Halmi Sr. (who produced the six-hour “Dinotopia,” on ABC, among countless other multipart TV movies for Hallmark Prods.)

Darryl Frank, co-head of DreamWorks TV (“Taken,” “Band of Brothers”), said that cable has begun to eclipse broadcast TV as the home of the maxi-mini for a number of reasons.

A maxi-mini, in Frank’s view, causes havoc with regularly scheduled series during the period when the network programs it, confusing people by disrupting their viewing habits.

By contrast, most cable networks have flexibility with their schedules, he says.

Sci Fi, for example, could almost guarantee stellar ratings for “Taken” because it ran each two-hour episode four times within a 24-hour period, premiering it at 9 p.m. and repeating it at 11 p.m., 1 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Another hazard for a broadcast network that schedules a multipart mini over consecutive nights is the sickening feeling that emerges when the opening-night episode, usually during a crucial Nielsen-sweep period, chalks up very little viewer sampling. The chances of that maxi-mini’s finding more viewers on each of the next few nights are agonizingly remote.

Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz TV, a station consultancy, remembers the beating NBC took in the ratings in 2000 when “The Tenth Kingdom,” produced by Halmi, turned viewers off throughout 10 hours over five consecutive nights.

That failure is one of the reasons that ABC plans to schedule the 15-hour “Kingdom Hospital” as a weekly series.

The orchestrator of the “Taken” schedule, Sci Fi prexy Bonnie Hammer, which has commissioned more maxi-minis than any other network, says that she rolled the dice with her first event three years ago, an expensive six-hour remake of Frank Herbert’s novel “Dune.”

When “Dune” scored the highest ratings in Sci Fi’s history over three nights in December 2000, Hammer realized that pouring marketing money into an event miniseries “creates a buzz and anticipation that you can’t achieve with a 22-episode series.”

No network has the resources to sustain a marketing blitz that could spread across 22 weeks, she says.

And a maxi-mini that hooks masses of viewers, says Steve LeBlang , head of research for FX, becomes “a success not just in the numerical sense but in helping to brand the network” as a destination for big-deal programming.

Steve Koonin, exec VP and chief operating officer of TNT and TBS, agrees that the potential humongous audience TNT can attract with Spielberg’s project about the American West dwarfs the more mundane benefits of a traditional TV series.

So the trend toward more maxi-minis on cable is likely to be an enduring one. The fact that Spielberg has steered all of his maxi-minis to cable is a sign to Halmi that broadcasters have fallen hopelessly out of the running.

“Don’t forget that Spielberg started his career in television,” Halmi says. “So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s charged to the rescue of the entire miniseries genre.”