Ray Richmond is a contributor to AwardsLine
Just when everyone assumed that the original television miniseries was either dead or restricted to being the loss-leader indulgence of HBO, up pops History Channel’s Hatfields & McCoys in May to show the world that if you make a three-night event on a compelling subject with big stars (Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton) and a quality pedigree, the masses will still flock. Hatfields averaged nearly 14 million total viewers nightly, building to 14.3 million on Night 3 to become the most-watched entertainment telecast of all time on ad-supported cable.
Despite that success, so few miniseries are being done that the TV Academy last year was obliged to merge TV movies and miniseries into a single category. There simply is no longer close to the number of ambitious, big-budget minis as were commissioned in the days of Roots (1977), Jesus Of Nazareth (1977), The Winds Of War (1983) and War And Remembrance (1988-89). When it happens now, it’s generally on HBO via the likes of Angels In America (2003), John Adams (2008), The Pacific (2010) and Mildred Pierce (2011). Yet even HBO’s once-abundant longform output has slowed in recent years just to a few projects annually. Blame the shifting economics of the TV business. “The network TV-movie model fell by the wayside,” explains Michael Edelstein, president of international television production for NBCUniversal, which acquired Carnival Films in 2008. “In terms of bang for your buck, marketing a TV movie is a tough business to be in. As the audience has acquired more and more choices, broadcasters need to spend their marketing dollars more wisely, and that generally isn’t for one-off movies that go away after you air them. It’s for series.”
The thing is, few areas of primetime television have changed more in the last 20 years than the longform business. There was a time in the 1980s when the three major broadcast networks commissioned 100 made-for-TV movies apiece, along with a handful of long-running, expensive miniseries. Now, broadcasters barely air much more than a handful between them. It’s fallen almost entirely to cable and PBS to pick up whatever slack there is to pick up. Nonetheless, plenty of minis and movies still get produced, many of which involve creative/partnership financing that mirror independent film financing more than a traditional TV deal. For instance, Carnival was involved in producing the top Emmy contender Page Eight that aired last year as part of Masterpiece (which co-produced) on PBS. The BBC provided the primary funding, but the risk was shared. Masterpiece is a minority financer of bigger productions like Downton Abbey and Page Eight.
And there are factors that make producing period miniseries in particular cheaper in the UK, Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton says. “There are tax credits and benefits from being an independent company. The work rules are slightly different over there. But in large part, we’re in the business of attracting underwriters and selling DVDs.” In the U.S., however, most networks would rather put their programming resources into series that can pay off in repeat viewings than something with such limited shelf life as a mini or made-for-TV movie. The production costs can’t be amortized the same way, and there’s seemingly less incentive to pull off the necessary creative financing.
Typical of how miniseries get made in the UK is the way that Britain’s ITV commissioned the four-hour mini Titanic that aired on ABC in April and was written by Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes. A co-production between the UK and Canada, it was the kind of ambitious project that requires multiple partners to pull off financially, explains ITV’s head of distribution Maria Kyriacou. “We had 12 partners when Titanic was greenlit,” Kyriacou notes. “That means 12 broadcasters committed money on a pre-buy that accorded them broadcast rights in their territory. By the time it aired, we’d placed it in 100 territories. But when you’re setting up a big global miniseries event like this, it means preselling based on a script. So people had to believe in the concept and the talent attached to it.” Only a handful of big-budget miniseries are being produced worldwide in the English language each year, says Titanic exec producer Simon Vaughan. “What you no longer have is a middle market,” he says. “Five years ago, you could make a $10 million miniseries. Now it’s pretty foolhardy to think you’re going to be able to successfully produce and distribute anything at that level. They all need to be $15 million-plus now. It’s almost not a business. It’s more of an indulgence. In general, a UK/U.S. partnership with a significant European presale is the best way to go.”
Where the made-for-TV movie business continues to thrive as in the days of old is at the Hallmark Channel and Lifetime, neither of which appears to have received the memo that this is a threadbare genre. In 2012, Hallmark Channel has 28 original movies, and its sister Hallmark Movie Channel an additional eight, while Lifetime has on its slate 56 original films across its two networks (also including Lifetime Movie Network). Hallmark has been able to create franchises with its films such as The Good Witch starring Catherine Bell and a series of movies based on Janette Oke novels. They keep costs low on production and monetize the properties in a multitude of ways, including streaming Web content, electronic sell-through, social media platforms and repeated airings.
“The durability and repeatability of our movie content is very high,” says Michelle Vicary, Hallmark’s EVP Programming. “This isn’t a single-airing business for us. They’re really more like evergreens.” Rob Sharenow, Lifetime’s EVP Programming, also points to the repeatability factor as a reason why the volume MOW business makes sense for his networks.
Lifetime’s originals generally draw a bigger number than do the big-budget studio acquisitions. One recent example was the much-praised 2011 breast cancer film anthology Five that the network is giving a sizeable push for Emmy attention this year. “We’re also able to use our film library in a significant way, owning them and releasing them on DVD,” Sharenow says. “International is also an exciting growth area for us. There’s a big appetite for using the U.S. as a foreign sales partner. …The classic Lifetime true crime films do very well on the overseas market. You have the core element of women betrayed, and that human drama exports surprisingly well. There’s something primal about the storytelling.” Moreover, there remains a huge growth opportunity in making the kind of films theatrical studios no longer are interested in, Sharenow believes: “We’re talking about telling great stories that grown-ups are interested in. Our mentality isn’t, ‘How many young men can we get in the theater opening weekend?’ It’s seizing the opportunity to attract great scripts, actresses and directors who want to do serious projects. Who is going to make the next Kramer Vs. Kramer, the next Witness, the next The Big Chill going forward? Maybe we will.”