In which we look at once common curiosities of pop culture that don’t exist anymore, be it because of changing tastes, the fragmentation of culture, or merely the fickle nature of fads.
“This week our regular programming will be pre-empted so that we may bring you a special television event.”
Such was how you knew you were in for something big in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s – a sweeping epic harkening back to the days of grand movie experiences like Gone With the Wind or Doctor Zhivago, except even longer, and on your TV screen, but for free, and with way, way higher production values, budgets, and star power than the usual fare of CHiPs and One Day at a Time. And you simply had to tune in, because it was event television, and events happen and then fade into history and you can’t catch them again because VCRs weren’t invented yet (or they cost $2,000, same difference) and everyone at work would be talking about it, and maybe even at school, because if it was about history, watching this new, long-form but limited run television format was actually part of your homework.
Maybe you got to stay up late and watch the whole episode. Maybe you got to stay up late every night for six nights in a row to catch every episode and see the exciting conclusion of how the bible ends, or how World War II ends, or how that James Michener novel ends.
Miniseries, as cheesy-soapy as most of them may seem in retrospect, were really damn exciting. Their heyday represented a huge turning point in the evolution of TV and its use as a creative medium. American TV wasn’t heavily serialized in the ‘70s. Sitcoms predictably wrapped up their action in 22 minutes, reset things at square one, and tackled a new problem the next week. Cops on cop shows handled one case a week, never speaking of old cases ever again. TV was literally about broadcasting – cable didn’t really exist yet, so TV had to appeal to everybody, and everybody didn’t watch every episode of every series every week. The only reason anybody does that now is because of TiVo, DVDs, and Hulu. The result was that TV shows were come as you are, if you came at all.
But they’ve always done it differently in England. TV shows don’t have to go on forever there. They’ll make a show, run it for six or twelve episodes, and that’s it. That relaxed approach allowed for British TV to exploit that country’s grand literary tradition, with the “novel for television format”— a book is adapted into some one-hour chunks, and shown on TV, as opposed to in movie theaters. The first such series imported into the U.S. was The Forsyte Saga, which did very well on public television, leading the Big 3 networks to give it a try. ABC made a seven-hour adaptation of Leon Uris’s QB VII in 1974, and CBS aired Moses the Lawgiver in 1975.
ABC remained the innovator in the genre. When Fred Silverman became head of programming at ABC in 1975, he thought the miniseries was a brilliant gambit. Air them during Sweeps he thought, when the networks set their ad rates and thusly tried to lure in as many viewers as possible, and ratings would be huge. To further entice us, Silverman coined the term “event television.” ABC aired Rich Man, Poor Man in 1976. It was the second-most watched show on all of TV that season (and also made a star out of Nick Nolte). The next season, ABC put Roots on the air. Universally known as one of the most popular and well-made TV productions ever, ABC had its doubts that a large audience (okay, old racists) would watch a 12-hour epic about slavery, so they aired it on consecutive nights, not in a weekly time slot like they’d done with QB VII or Rich Man, Poor Man. They were wrong—more than 130 million Americans watched Roots. The last episode is still in the top 10 most watched programs ever.
Some more TV events that brought us together as a nation, to watch TV:
• Jesus of Nazareth
• The Thorn Birds
• The Winds of War
Based on the Herman Wouk novel that’s too long for anyone to read, The Winds of War was 14 hours long, cost $40 million to make, and covered only the first two years of World War II. But it was a smash in the ratings, so…sequel! (Spoiler: Germany loses, as does Japan.) But War and Remembrance took five years and an astounding $110 million to make. By the time it aired in 1988, the miniseries was dying as a. “Event television” couldn’t bring in the majority of the population once the majority of the population had options beyond what was on the Big 3 networks—like cable, video, or attending Michael Dukakis rallies, for example. War and Remembrance had anemic ratings, so ABC certainly wasn’t going to spend a fortune on miniseries anymore…although they did run shorter, lower budgeted adaptations of some Stephen King novels in the ‘90s, notably The Stand and The Tommyknockers. But for the most part, all the networks shrunk the miniseries down to two-part, TV movies—miniseries in name only. Then they disappeared from network TV almost entirely.
There’s too much competition and fragmented audiences for there to be true event television anymore, save the occasional finale of a long-running show, or the Super Bowl, which is watched by 90 million people each year, half for the game, half because it’s on in the background while they shovel chicken wings into their nacho-holes. Why even watch a show right when it’s on, except to avoid spoilers from your friends, and jerks on Twitter? You can watch it later on DVD, or TiVo it. However, HBO and other cable networks do some good business with the miniseries. Their secret? They show them a whole bunch of times.
There are so few miniseries that the Emmys merged all the TV movie categories with the miniseries categories a few years back. What miniseries have come about in the last few years (The Bible, Mildred Pierce) seem to be, ironically, and once again, not about carrying on the American miniseries tradition, but more of a reflection of limited-run British TV.