Historical sweep. Spectacle. Grandeur.
Those were the traits that became synonymous with the term miniseries when "Roots" burst upon the American cultural landscape eight years ago.
Today, the miniseries is less often a long-awaited epic than it is a readily available programming tool. Though gargantuan ratings like those of the classic miniseries have become rare, the format still can be counted on for a quick ratings boost, high-ticket sales to advertisers and a dash of added prestige.
ABC, NBC and CBS, continuing last season's affinity for the miniseries, will present a whopping 116 hours' worth in 1985-86. They've slapped the label on everything from "North and South," a staggering 24 hours of Civil War-era melodrama divided into two "books" on ABC, to "Doubletake," CBS' four-hour mystery concerning two separate murders in which the heads of the victims have been switched.
In between, thematically, is fare of diverse size and scope, including last week's "The Long Hot Summer," essentially a four-hour remake of the 1958 film (NBC); "Kane & Abel," based on Jeffrey Archer's best-seller (seven hours on CBS); "Peter the Great," an epic filmed in the Soviet Union (eight hours on NBC); "Out on a Limb," starring Shirley MacLaine as herself in a globe-spanning spiritual quest (five hours on ABC); "Mussolini: The Untold Story" starring George C. Scott (seven hours on NBC); "Sins," starring Joan Collins (seven hours, CBS); "Harem," about a young American woman abducted into a harem in the early 1900s (four hours, ABC), and two based on Sidney Sheldon novels, "If Tomorrow Comes" (seven hours, CBS) and "Rage of Angels: The Story Continues" (four hours, NBC).
This maxi-load of minis comes two seasons since the format last hit it reallly big with "The Thorn Birds" and "The Winds of War," both on ABC in 1983.
Too, the proliferation of miniseries, especially the four-hour variety, threatens to dull its allure. "There are too many on the air and they are not special enough," CBS Entertainment President B. Donald (Bud) Grant remarked at an industry luncheon last month, and his counterparts at ABC and NBC agreed.
Yet the programming plate suggests that none of the Big Three is prepared to stop dishing out minis while the public still has a healthy appetite.
"It's not like before, when minis came once or twice a year and were something truly extraordinary; now they are merely something special," said John Miller, NBC vice president for advertising and promotions. "But using these words gets to be like giant size and king size --what's the difference?"
Ratings back up that sentiment. The season's first miniseries, "The Long Hot Summer," starring "Miami Vice's" Don Johnson in the Paul Newman role, earned NBC 35% of the available viewers averaged over two nights and handily beat the competition. Though its audience wasn't on par with something like "The Thorn Birds," which earned a prodigious 59% share of viewers, "Long Hot Summer" wasn't as ambitious or expensive a production either.
Yet even the four-hour works--sometimes called "mini-minis"--usually have essential ingredients that distinguish miniseries from one-night made-for-TV movies, executives say. Those include bigger stars, teleplays based on best sellers, more exotic locations and heftier budgets. Miniseries on average cost $2 million an hour as compared with $2 million to $3 million total for a typical two-hour TV movie.
Programmers like miniseries for their ability to bolster weak spots in the prime-time lineup. Minis often air during the "sweeps" periods, when private ratings services gauge network performance to set advertising rates. At ABC, which presented seven of the all-time top 10 miniseries, vice president for novels and limited series Christy Welker maintains that the format still attracts viewers who "would not normally be there at ABC right now."
"At their worst, they will outperform your regular series on a bad night," noted Earle (Kim) LeMasters, CBS vice president for miniseries. They also tend to attract "light" viewers, those who don't normally watch much TV.
Advertisers like miniseries too. Even an average mini tends to stand out amid regular series, they believe, and the best and biggest offer a prestige environment for corporate sponsorship.
In return, sponsors often pay top dollar. "Peter the Great," produced in-house at NBC for about $25 million to $28 million, will probably break even with one showing by selling its 30-second spots (14 per hour) for roughly $250,000 each, according to an advertising industry source. That's nearly as much per spot as on TV's No. 1 show, "The Cosby Show."
The production companies and studios, meanwhile, find that, with miniseries, desirability can transcend profitability.