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Celebrating an Epic Career

On TV / BRIAN LOWRY

March 09, 1999|BRIAN LOWRY

Television networks have become preoccupied with "event" programming, predicated on the conclusion that broadcasters can't regularly assemble the vast audiences they once did but can at least inspire people to visit the old neighborhood.

While of lesser magnitude than the ratings storm ABC whipped up last week with Hurricane Monica, the recently concluded February sweeps were full of such manufactured events. They ranged from Stephen King's first written-for-TV miniseries, ABC's "Storm of the Century," to NBC's four-hour CD promotion, "The '60s," to Fox's "live!" opening of an Egyptian tomb--a higher-brow special for Fox, one hopes because the network has begun running out of numskulls willing to immolate themselves on the air.

These programs drew impressive ratings; still, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen's classic debate retort to Dan Quayle, David L. Wolper knows big events, big events have been good to him, and, folks, these ain't no big events.

As the executive producer behind such miniseries as "Roots" and "The Thorn Birds," as well as the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics, Wolper's name goes with "big" in the same way Woody Allen's connotes "neurotic."

Wolper's 50 years in show business are being commemorated with several fittingly splashy celebrations, including Museum of Television & Radio and American Film Institute tributes this month as well as an upcoming "60 Minutes" profile. Having started as a documentarian who helped expose Jacques Cousteau's undersea world to the air, he's also producing a 10-hour CNN retrospective, "Celebrate the Century," which premieres in May.

Big Miniseries Pose Big Risks, Producer Admits

Given that the major networks have seemingly come to the "Godzilla"-like conclusion that size matters, the 71-year-old Wolper--still active, having brought his son Mark in as president of his company--and his brand of mega-tainment would seem to be in vogue. Yet as Wolper surveys the current landscape, he has concluded current terminology may be more lavish than the programs themselves.

For starters, Wolper rejects labeling four-hour productions that run two nights--leaving roughly three hours of actual production excluding commercials--a "miniseries." By contrast, the 12-hour "Roots" extended over eight consecutive nights in 1977, "The Thorn Birds" played 10 hours in '83, and the Civil War melodrama "North and South" and its sequel battled on a total of 24 hours, broadcast during sweeps periods in 1985 and '86.

"Tomorrow if I said we're doing a 10-hour show, you'd be impressed, and you'd write about it, because 10 hours is an event," Wolper said, relaxing in his office on the Warner Bros. lot. "Four hours is not an event. I don't care what they say. Four hours is a long movie."

Last week, NBC Entertainment President Scott Sassa indicated going more than two nights with a miniseries might be asking for too much of a commitment from viewers, who have more strain on their time than was the case in the past.

Wolper acknowledges that blockbuster miniseries pose a risk. No TV executive wants to check ratings the morning after a six-part miniseries opens and discover no one watched, leaving five more nights of dismal ratings looming ahead.

In Wolper's view, it's as simple as this: No guts, no glory.

"They won't do it because they're afraid," he said. "You have to have [guts]. You have to say, 'We think it's going to work. Let's go with it.' Either you're going to kill the world, or you're going to fall on your rear end."

Sequels to "The Thorn Birds" and "North and South" a few years ago pretty much did the latter, which may have helped deter networks from such undertakings.

Costs also have skyrocketed, adding to the peril large-scale productions entail for tenuous executive careers. Wolper produced "Roots" for $7 million. Producer Robert Halmi Sr. shelled out nearly five times that on his four-hour productions of "Merlin" and the upcoming "Cleopatra."

Some Recent Miniseries Have Been Successful

Yet Wolper doesn't see failure as an excuse in a business in which the majority of everything does just that.

"They say [long] miniseries are dead because the last three didn't work," he noted. "I say, 'Oh? Let's see, how many series did you put on the air last year? Six? How many worked? One? Series don't work, I guess.'

"Why say the form doesn't work because people didn't watch two or three in a row if you don't say that about series? The form works. We just have to find the right subject matter."

There have been successes in relatively recent times. The 1994 adaptation of King's "The Stand" ran eight hours, as did "Lonesome Dove" a decade ago. Wolper also produced the six-hour "Queen," a branch of "Roots" author Alex Haley's family tree, which became a huge hit for CBS in 1993 after ABC balked at allowing the project to run more than four hours.

Wolper Has More Projects in Works

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