After nine years and a revolving door of producers and concepts, ABC News is finally unveiling its ambitious 12-hour documentary "The Century" tonight.
Besides the ABC series, "The Century" project also now includes "The Century: America's Time," a 15 1/2-hour documentary series premiering April 12 on the History Channel; http://thecentury.com Web site; an educational outreach program; and the current best-selling companion book from Doubleday, "The Century," by ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster.
The price tag for the whole project is estimated to be at least $25 million and ABC will use it as fresh programming to drop into the pre-May sweeps landscape of reruns.
Though two installments of the series will preempt the network's popular Monday night movie showcase, the series will be dropped into two of the network's least successful nights, Thursday and Saturday.
Executive producer Tom Yellin, though, is pleased with the time slots. "It is tightly together," he says, referring to the decision to run the entire 12 hours in two weeks, all in prime-time. "I have been buried. I know what buried is."
Buried could well have referred to the fate of the project, which has been swept up in well-documented turmoil for years, and came close to being completely scrapped twice. The comings and goings of different regimes at ABC News--some that backed the project, others that wanted to abandon it--meant the documentary series kept shifting hands and directions, with the cost escalating along with the changes.
Along the way, virtually every potential producing partner--including the United Nations, the BBC and even the Russian state television company--eventually walked away from any involvement with the project.
"I don't want to say I'm stunned, but let's say I'm very pleased that ABC News and ABC network has maintained its commitment to this project through thick and thin, and it's definitely been thick and thin," says Yellin, who declined to elaborate on the project's travails, which preceded him.
Originally conceived as a weeklong 26-hour event, it was eventually separated into two series and split between ABC and the History Channel, in which ABC has an interest.
By the time Yellin, who previously produced the ABC news magazine series "Day One," took over last summer from executive producer Av Westin, "there had been a tremendous amount of work all the way through," he says. Still, Yellin wondered from the outset: "Is the direction that this has been going been the best direction?" The answer was no and the bulk of what will run on ABC was assembled and packaged after Yellin arrived.
As it is now designed, "The Century," which continues through April 10, explores 12 pivotal stories that defined the era, including Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight across the Atlantic, which opens the series tonight; the space race to the moon; Adolf Hitler's rise to power; the birth of the atomic bomb; World War I; the final days of the Vietnam War; and even the early career of Elvis Presley.
The History Channel's "America's Time," in contrast, offers a chronological overview of the past 100 years.
Jennings, who anchors both the ABC and History Channel documentaries, has been involved with the project from the outset. "I have been the great passionate enthusiast here," says Jennings, a history buff.
One of the reasons there was so much trouble formulating the approach to the series, says Jennings, is that they never knew how long ABC was going to give them for each segment.
"We ended up with what seems to have worked quite well for us--two-hour blocks--so then we began to look for subjects and stories that would lend themselves to a whole hour and then would twin them to something else," he says.
"The Century" offers a journalistic view of history, according to Jennings. "We are not historians," he says. "We rely tremendously on historians, but as journalists we wanted to tell stories. We wanted people to have some experience of what it was like to live through these great events."
Yellin adds: "We decided if we choose well, and we hope we have, we can tell stories that are not only interesting but dramatic in themselves and can also contain within them ideas and forces that go throughout the century."
Yellin, who is not involved in the History Channel series, nevertheless made a conscious attempt not to overlap footage and witnesses between the two projects. Still, in the case of the World War I segments, both documentaries feature the same five veterans of the conflict.
"Obviously, there are things in the History Channel version that are in much greater detail and there are a million things in there we don't touch on," Yellin says. "There are many ways to skin a cat."
Yellin and his 12 teams of researchers searched out different eye witnesses to events, as well as rare footage. In the Lindbergh segment, for example, they tracked down the bellhop who worked at the hotel Lucky Lindy stayed at before his historic flight.