Cablers ponder future of miniseries

Cablers try new tactics to limit risk


Read the review of ‘The Pacific’

The war in the Pacific was a crucial turning point in WWII. It may well turn out that HBO’s “The Pacific” marks the peak of the megabudget miniseries for cable.

HBO has several ambitious longform projects in the works, but none close to the budgetary size ($200 million) and scope of “The Pacific.”

The miniseries form has long been out of favor for broadcast nets — due to decreased ratings and hefty marketing expenses — and now it’s being reinvented as a business model for basic and pay cablers. The next generation minis may not be as mega, but a number of U.S. outlets and international TV players are experimenting with the form to keep it alive in a way that works for contempo auds and economic realities.

The new focus is on projects of shorter duration, tighter budgets and multiple international co-production partners to help shoulder the burden. The emphasis on international partners has an influence on the type of projects developed. Costume dramas rooted in European history are in; uniquely American stories, not so much.

That trend was evident last month at the Mip TV sales confab in Cannes, where several high-profile miniseries projects were unveiled and shopped to network partners around the world. Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free banner and Sony Pictures TV are teaming with Germany’s Tandem Communications to revisit “Pompeii.” Ben Silverman’s Electus shingle is shepherding “William the Conquerer,” Canal Plus and multiple Euro TV partners are taking on “The Borgias” (as is Showtime in a separate project), while Graham King’s fledgling GK TV banner is working with Irish production partners on “Camelot.”

Expenses are so great for these kinds of historical epics that HBO’s “Rome,” originally targeted as a mini but expanded after execs thought it would play better as a series, had to be wrapped up in two seasons in part due to budget concerns.

Some networks that had been players in the market for minis have largely eased out of the form — like Showtime and TNT — while others are experimenting with the occasional high-profile entry.

History is taking a gamble on its first scripted mini, an eight-hour project about the Kennedy political dynasty in hopes that the legend of a 20th-century Camelot — with Katie Holmes cast as Jacqueline Kennedy — will help it sell overseas. AMC put a decidedly international spin on last year’s redo of “The Prisoner,” which starred Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel. A&E Network is turning to a well-established property, the Michael Crichton-penned medical thriller “Coma,” as its next mini, following its success in 2008 with “Andromeda Strain.”

Chris Albrecht, who championed big-budget longform projects during his tenure at HBO, is looking to generate some noise for his new home, Starz, with star-stocked, heavily promoted miniseries. Among his first programming decisions after joining Starz in January as prexy and CEO was the acquisition of “The Pillars of the Earth,” a $40 million, eight-hour mini set in 12th century England from Scott Free and Tandem. Starz has also picked up “Camelot.”

But with ancillary streams from such expensive fare drying up, it’s more important than ever to share costs.

“With the DVD market softening, (the miniseries is) not the pot of gold in terms of revenue that it once was,” Albrecht says. “The business of financing these things will be an important part of how we do the miniseries, so what Starz is looking at are international source partners for co-productions, and we’re also looking at things that would spread across different cultures successfully.”

HBO has certainly had its share of success in the format, enticing subscribers a dozen years ago with unique fare such as space mini “From the Earth to the Moon,” and later, “Band of Brothers” (2001) and “Angels in America” (2003).

But HBO is not immune to the cost-consciousness affecting the TV biz. The cabler’s considerable resources are being plowed largely into series and telepics with high-profile creatives, a la the Al Pacino starrer “You Don’t Know Jack” and “Grey Gardens,” the Jessica Lange-Drew Barrymore awards magnet. And there is no denying that event minis have had limited returns, even those with glowing critical reviews, like “Pacific” and 2008 seven-part biodrama “John Adams,” which sported a pricetag of nearly $100 million.

“Pacific,” whose final installment premieres May 16, has averaged 8.4 million viewers per episode across various HBO platforms — an impressive cume given that the cabler’s Sunday premiere telecasts have averaged less than 3 million viewers.

Michael Lombardo, HBO’s president of programming and West Coast operations, called the “Pacific” budget “a high-water mark” for the company. It’s not something they’re rushing to replicate, but he allows that there is still room to take on these big budgets in the future if planned properly.

“We can’t do something like ‘The Pacific’ every year because we don’t want to exhaust those properties,” Lombardo says. “At the same time, there are projects that demand a large budget and we are out to deliver the best product to our customer.”

Like “Band of Brothers,” “Pacific” was aided by the strong international appeal of its subject matter and the marquee value of exec producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. “Pacific” rights fetched solid coin from TV outlets in the vast majority of major overseas markets.

“For the right program, these (projects can be) huge overseas,” Lombardo says. “Something like ‘John Adams,’ which had a stronger American appeal, did not sell quite as well internationally.”

Lombardo insists HBO will remain in the big-event production biz, even if the profit margins are greatly squeezed. But he also sees promise in future projects that generate strong buzz even if the budgets aren’t as eye-popping.

Todd Haynes is at work on a five-part adaptation of the James M. Cain noir classic “Mildred Pierce,” starring Kate Winslet. Other projects in the pipeline include “1776,” penned by “John Adams” scribe Kirk Ellis, and the long-gestating project about Lewis and Clark’s famous trek, produced by Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.

Still, many foreign buyers are looking for shorter commitments than the10-hour-plus epics.

“People are curious about the four-hour formats, and I think we will see more of those out there,” Albrecht says. “Whether we see more of those longer versions will matter on how much interest there is to produce them.”

The trajectory of the miniseries biz on pay and basic cable parallels the form’s evolution in the 1970s and ’80s on the Big Three nets. ABC pioneered the epic mini with 1976’s “Rich Man, Poor Man” and the landmark “Roots.” NBC made an event out of “Shogun” at the start of the 1980-81 season. But by the 1988-89 season, ABC programmers went over the top with the 30-hour, $110 million (in 1980s dollars) WWII saga “War and Remembrance,” a followup to the 1983 hit “Winds of War.”

“Remembrance” couldn’t help but be a financial debacle for the network, and that experience put a chill on megabudget projects until HBO took up the mantle.

NBC stayed active with more modestly budgeted minis through the 1990s. But as nets faced increasing competition from cable, ABC, CBS and NBC shied away from devoting the kind of the money and promotional resources required to make a successful event mini, routing those investments into series that can deliver long-term benefits rather than the one-time pop of a mini.

Cablers are more amenable to longform projects as loss leaders to generate buzz and viewer sampling, but there are clearly limits on the biz these days.

“It will be difficult to continue to do very large productions, but if the money is there, there is always a chance to get something accomplished,” Albrecht says. “I think one of the nice things about a miniseries is you can tackle things that can’t be done by a film, and you can have different types of talent aboard since you aren’t asking them for years of their time like you would with a series.”

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