The broadcast networks put a bullet in TV-movies and miniseries a few years ago — then along came Hatfields & McCoys, the Kevin Costner vehicle that broke ratings records for History last month, averaging 13.8 million viewers over three nights.
Now, suddenly everyone's talking about TV movies and miniseries (dubbed "longforms" in Hollywood industryspeak) again. But will History's feuding families serve as a rallying cry and bring new life to TV-movies and minis?
It's a long shot. Still, as networks look for ways to make noise in a cluttered TV landscape, Hatfields executive producer Leslie Greif says he believes the time is right for the return of the big TV event. After all, the idea of a multi-night miniseries seems less daunting now that viewers regularly binge on hours of programming via Netflix and their DVRs. Plus, there's social media to galvanize viewers to major TV moments.
"There's renewed interest in the limited-series form," agrees Fox Television Studios president David Madden, whose company is behind the upcoming Lifetime movie Prosecuting Casey Anthony. "People were shocked by [Hatfields'] numbers."
Adds Craig Zadan, who's producing Lifetime's upcoming adaptation of Steel Magnolias (starring Queen Latifah): "There have been rumblings at all the broadcast networks, they've been at least discussing looking for that miniseries event that would give them a gigantic rating. I think it has stirred everything up."
Madden says he's now hoping to resurrect some of his old miniseries ideas, while Greif has sold a few projects in the wake of his surprise success. Zadan says he and producing partner Neil Meron are in the process of putting together "quite a few" new miniseries and movies (including one at HBO).
TV Guide Magazine has learned that Fox is in early development on an event series about the Civil War from Emmy-winning writer Bruce McKenna, who's been behind big minis like HBO's Band of Brothers and The Pacific. History is also at work on another miniseries (this time running four hours), from Sony Pictures TV (which was also behind Hatfields).
Sony also has some TV movies still in development at ABC. The longform business is "alive and well," says Sony Pictures TV movies and minis executive vice president Helen Verno. "It's just always changing, and therefore always challenging."
The biggest change has been the shift to cable, where HBO continues to churn out prestige projects (although its most recent entry, Hemingway & Gellhorn, was a ratings bust) and Lifetime, Hallmark, Syfy and ABC Family roll out lower-budget films (think $2 million) geared toward their niche audiences. (Nets also occasionally use longforms to seed series — witness The Client List, which began as a Lifetime movie.)
Network siblings A&E, History and Lifetime have also upped their big event miniseries output. Besides Steel Magnolias at Lifetime and Hatfields at History, next up A&E will debut the mini Coma from Ridley and Tony Scott during Labor Day weekend.
Longform is one way cable networks get their scripted feet wet; but some networks, like TNT and AMC, drop out of the movie and mini business once their regular series take off. Among other channels, Discovery Channel, which has flirted with scripted programming, might finally try a scripted movie or mini in the wake of Hatfields'success, and DirecTV is kicking around short-order projects.
But don't call it a comeback — yet. Times have changed, and viewers shouldn't expect a return to the era when ABC, CBS and NBC all regularly ran movies on Sunday nights and sweeps months were built around miniseries like Roots and The Winds of War. (The ones that do still air are mostly time buys purchased by advertisers like Hallmark and Walmart, or international acquisitions like ABC's recent Titanic.)
At ABC, a new take on Ben Hur — starring The Vampire Diaries' Joseph Morgan and Revenge's Emily VanCamp — has been sitting on the shelf for more than two years, with no airdate in sight.
"The argument networks make for not doing movies and minis is that it costs so much to market them, and then they just come and go," Greif says. History spent millions marketing Hatfields, and most networks would rather spend that kind of money on their regular series.
For the producers who still attempt to make a living with TV-movies and miniseries, it's been such a roller-coaster month. As Hatfields blasted its way onto the Nielsen chart, CBS canceled one of broadcast TV's last movie franchises, Tom Selleck's Jesse Stone. Despite a decent audience, Jesse Stone attracted few young viewers, prompting CBS to consider getting out of the movie business altogether. Selleck will now shop it elsewhere.
"Someone will pick those up," says an insider. "I don't know who, or if they'll be able to make them at a price that Tom is happy with."
Also this month, the TV Academy voted to further downsize its already shrinking categories, combining all movie and miniseries acting categories into just two. "Speaking as a voting member of the Academy, I think it's a grave misjudgment," Greif says. "They disrespect their own art form." Verno says she's "disappointed" that some supporting actor and actress talent now might not get Emmy recognition.
Given what happened with the Academy, Hatfields & McCoys couldn't have come at a better time. "Now that things seem to be on steadier ground, this marketplace can become healthier and healthier," says Zadan. Adds a hopeful Greif: "Maybe it proved a point, that there is a hunger for quality long-form programming."