Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Broadcast networks and miniseries -- Will it ever happen again?
Well, I guess that headline is partially dumb and misleading, because obviously the major broadcast networks will air a miniseries at least one more time in the future. I think.
But what I meant by that headline is can the broadcast networks actually air a quality miniseries?
Based on my in-depth (read: mostly from Wikipedia and tangential sources stemming from that Wiki analysis) research, a broadcast miniseries hasn't been nominated for the Best Miniseries Emmy since 2005 when CBS' Elvis mini was nominated. In the last ten years, only 8 of the 39 nominees for Best Miniseries have been from a major network -- and 5 of those 8 came in 2000 and 2001. Finally, only 2001's Anne Frank: The Whole Story (ABC) actually won the Best Mini award in that time period.
Those are staggering figures.
One might say that just like all the other Emmys, the cable companies are the ones getting nominated and maybe the broadcast networks are still dedicated to the miniseries.
One might be wrong. Again, I cannot be 100 percent sure because there isn't one spot where all this information is listed, but just in terms of general production output, the pickings they are a slim. In recent years, most broadcast networks have decided the best story to tell in the miniseries format is the worldwide disaster. NBC produced 10.5 in 2004 and 10.5: Apocalypse in 2006 and The Storm in 2009. CBS did Category 6: Day of Destruction in 2004 and Category 7: The End of the World in 2005. ABC aired Impact in 2008. And there might be more.
This is what the broadcast networks think of the miniseries or at least their ability to air a good one. They think putting glasses on James Van Der Beek and calling him a scientist is good enough for us. AND I EVEN LIKE THE BEEK.
That's one of the major problems with broadcast nets and the mini: they don't produce themselves. I'd wager that every one of those disaster-related projects were produced by third parties -- most likely in Canada -- and then distributed by one of the big boys.
The thing is, we all know why the major broadcast powers don't produce miniseries these days: the cost. The Pacific reportedly cost upwards of $250 million and even if that's on a very extreme end of the pole, the penny pinching broadcast powers aren't going to shell out even $50 million for something that would air over a couple days. Especially if they don't think the ratings will be there -- NBC's summer unspooling of The Storm managed a beautiful .9 in the 18-49 demo and less than 5 million viewers -- and they might not be.
I understand that HBO can manage something like The Pacific, with Hanks/Spielberg in-tow, the pedigree and the subscribers providing revenue even if it is a ratings failure. But HBO has put themselves in that situation by taking chances with the miniseries ten years ago and now they have people like Hanks and Spielberg coming to them ready to do things like The Pacific. They can spend millions of dollars marketing the mini for a year because they know that with the HBO name and all the things mentioned above, people will watch.
But shouldn't a broadcast network -- say NBC -- try a similar strategy? Sure, it would be on a much tighter budget (especially at first), but the Peacock needs something to be known for; why couldn't it be great miniseries? All it takes is one or two sharply written, tightly produced miniseries that cover interesting topics with real promotion during a prime spot. That might seem like a lot, but it's not. Minute to Win It and The Marriage Ref aren't going to make us fall back in love with NBC, but a cool miniseries could.
And NBC makes the most sense because its parent company is one of the most efficient producers of miniseries. Both USA and SyFy have aired successful minis over the past few years -- Taken, Battlestar Galactica, The 4400, The Lost Room, Tin Man, Alice, The Starter Wife and maybe a few more. Sure, not all of them were fantastic, but a few of them were, most of the rest were solid and only a couple were outrightly bad. Thus, while NBCU is strong with the miniseries, NBC is not. They even had their own one lined up with Day One, but it constantly saw its order cut and by the beginning of this year was basically shelved.
Where does that leave us with the miniseries? Probably exactly where we are right now, with most major networks ignoring them unless the title is used as a way to hedge bets with a product that might not be that successful -- like what ABC's doing with the V reboot -- while HBO and other cable nets dominate the field.
But despite the cost, it's time for a broadcast network to take a chance on a major miniseries. As we've seen lately, "event TV" is getting bigger and bigger with social media involved and the miniseries is one of the best forms of event television.