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Reflecting on Harold Robbins’ Big Mip Experience in 1969

Fifty years ago, 1,500 individuals from 53 countries attended the fifth edition of MipTV at Cannes. It’s a small fraction of the estimated 10,500 expected this year, but organizers in 1969 were ecstatic at the turnout. They were also ecstatic to welcome celebs such as Harold Robbins, plugging “The Survivors,” starring Lana Turner.

On April 30, 1969, Variety reported that the hour-long drama was budgeted at “a new all-time high of $300,000 per episode.” Robbins was hot stuff in the 1960s as he virtually invented sex-and-wealth blockbuster novels with “The Carpetbaggers” and “Where Love Has Gone.” In addition to his Mip-promoted “Survivors,” various companies were planning adaptations of four Robbins works, including big-screen projects “The Adventurers,” “The Inheritors” and “Stiletto,” plus the TV-targeted “79 Park Avenue.” That quartet represented a total investment of $36 million.

“I am the only writer able to make three major companies go broke in one year,” he joked at Cannes.

“The Survivors,” which also starred George Hamilton, was a Universal production for ABC. Variety described it as a story about “the power elite” adding that “Robbins is writing the series as he would a regular novel.” There would be a through line, but each hour-long segment worked as a stand-alone and each episode was labeled a “chapter.”

Though Robbins personally had a two-year guarantee for $20,000 for each “chapter,” the series tanked after only 15 episodes. A decade before “Dallas” and “Dynasty” popularized the genre of rich and glamorous agonies, audiences weren’t interested: “The Survivors” consistently trailed in the TV ratings to “Mayberry RFD” and “The Doris Day Show.”

Robbins didn’t bankrupt the three companies, as he’d joked at Cannes, but most of them were bad investments. “Adventurers” and “Stiletto” barely registered at the box-office; “Inheritors” was never made, after years of development. Only “79 Park Avenue” was a success, earning big ratings as a 1977 miniseries.

And while “Survivors” didn’t survive, it paved the way for the boom in primetime TV miniseries (a term that was coined in the early 1970s), such as adaptations of Leon Uris’ “QB VII” (1974) and Irwin Shaw’s “Rich Man, Poor Man” (1976). The following year, the breakthrough “Roots,” which took the miniseries in a very different direction.

Also available at the 1969 Mip were variety series “The Jerry Lewis Show” plus French-dubbed versions of “I Spy” and “Bonanza.”

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