On April 5, HBO launches from the Earth to the Moon, its $68 million, 12-hour, Tom Hanks-produced epic chronicling America’s triumphant exploration of space. The question is whether the six-night show will also ignite what some are calling a second golden age of the miniseries.
You remember the miniseries. Not the 4-hour wimps of today — the 8-, 12-, even 18-hour ratings whoppers of the late ’70s to mid-’80s, historical epics that came to define event television: Roots. The Thorn Birds. The Winds of War. Since ABC’s $110 million, 30-hour bomb, War and Remembrance, almost single-handedly killed the mini in 1988, the Big Three have only fitfully attempted long-form programming. But increasingly, as the broadcast nets compete for dwindling viewership, the endangered genre is finding a nurturing habitat on cable: In addition to Hanks’ Earth, HBO has Decalogue, a 10-hour contemporization of the Ten Commandments, and Patriot, America’s founding fathers in 13 hours; Showtime has 6 hours of Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City; and USA is considering giving its Huck Finn project three nights.
”No guts, no glory was the philosophy [at the broadcast nets]before. Now it’s no guts at all,” says David Wolper, who knows from guts, having exec-produced ABC’s groundbreaking Alex Haley opus in 1977. Wolper believes he’d never get a Roots-size mini on the nets today: ”First of all, 12 hours, are you kidding? Maybe if it starred John F. Kennedy Jr. and Princess Diana. I don’t think they’re doing minis today. I don’t call four hours a miniseries.”
Harve Bennett, the exec producer behind 1976’s breakthrough mini, the 12-hour Rich Man, Poor Man, says if he had a long-form project he’d ”go to HBO first. HBO, Showtime, TNT — they’re the prestige markets today, the ones who want to do award-winning material.” (HBO and TNT are owned by EW parent company, Time Warner.)
The most damning sign of the times came last September, at the 1997 Emmys, when HBO and PBS swept the miniseries and movies category. At January’s Golden Globes, only one broadcast net was even nominated for best mini — NBC’s four-hour The Odyssey. ”The heads of several networks were complaining that HBO was getting the lion’s share of nominations and wins because we market better,” remembers Chris Albrecht, HBO’s president of original programming. ”HBO gets attention because we’re making movies of high quality.”
Albrecht says Earth is about branding HBO more aggressively: ”We’re saying to subscribers that we’re spending a lot of money to give them something they can’t get elsewhere. People keep saying, How are you going to make money back? They don’t get it. We’re in a different business [from the networks]. The arsenal HBO uses to satisfy subscribers and gain new ones is the money spent on programming. It’s not about recouping money on a specific program.”
HBO’s big advantage, of course, is in not being a ratings slave. ”We look at Nielsens because it’s nice to know people are watching,” says Albrecht. ”But we’re not selling [ads], we’re selling an entire network.”