Can sinking the 'Titanic' salvage the network miniseries?


Image Credit: Everett Collection

Esteemed miniseries still get produced by PBS, like last year’s Return to Cranford, but the major broadcast networks abandoned the genre after cable proved so adept at it (See: Band of Brothers, Angels in America, Broken Trail). A network miniseries hasn’t been nominated for an Emmy since 2005 (Elvis) or won since 2001 (Anne Frank: The Whole Story). But now ABC plans to bring back the spectacle of those must-see events. Not only is the network developing an eight-hour version of Wicked with Salma Hayek, but ABC recently announced it’s producing a four-parter about the doomed voyage of the Titanic, scripted by Julian Fellowes, who gifted us PBS’s recent prize, Downton Abbey.

There was a time when the network miniseries was a lucrative centerpiece of the Big 3’s seasonal television lineup. Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, obviously, were water-cooler events, back when there were still water-coolers and before cable television’s swift ascendancy, and the 1980s were a golden age, dotted with primetime miniseries that explored history, current events, and Richard Chamberlain’s handsomeness. PBS was always good for a few high-brow miniseries that would pop up in time for the Emmys, but it was the likes of Shogun (1980) and The Thorn Birds (1983) that entranced millions and million of viewers to a ratings degree unimaginable by today’s networks.

Titanic seems like a savvy vehicle to lure viewers back to the miniseries genre. Like North & South (1985), you already know how the story ends, but that won’t prevent you from delighting in the upstairs-downstairs melodrama and romantic tension. You might think they’ll need a Leo or a Kate to secure ratings gold, but I don’t think that will be a problem. Just get a CG boat, an iceberg, some class conflict, and you’re golden. Oh, and casting Richard Chamberlain and Jane Seymour in first-class wouldn’t hurt.

Do you recall the heyday of the network miniseries? As a kid, I was especially riveted by the performances of Brad Davis in Robert Kennedy & His Times (1985) and Chiefs (1984). (I’ve maintained a fascination with Bobby and grisly thrillers ever since.) Why do you think prime-time abandoned the miniseries so easily, and do you think Wicked and Titanic can bring them back en vogue?

Comments (23 total) Add your comment
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  • Chaddogg

    Stephen King’s “The Stand” was pretty spectacular in the mini-series genre, too….

    • Serenity is one the greatest movies this Century

      The last great miniseries I saw NBCs “Merlin” in the late 90s starring Sam Neil

  • Jimby

    I loved the golden age of the miniseries, particularly in college, when I could rent them on VHS and watch them in a couple of days. More recent cable fare like Band of Brothers and Pillars of the Earth have reminded me how good they can be; Perhaps Network TV would consider them more viable if they showed them weekly, as opposed to a consecutive-days run. Two six part miniseries would last longer than the typical new drama does. Miniseries, whether watched live or DVRed, are a much smaller commitment for the viewer and for the network, and they come with a guarantee that all episodes will be shown. So networks have to commit to these products, even if the commitment is only 4-6 hours.

    • John Berggren

      I would concur and add that a miniseries is an especially good way to test a series concept. Of course, if it worked, it’d be just as good to have an annual miniseries rather than a full 22.

  • Captain Average

    I remember being blown away by Roots and Shogun when they originally aired.

    I can’tr really see ABC’s Wicked and Titanic minis doing all that well with today’s fractured audiences, but I love that they’re going to try.

  • Mr. Holloway

    Wasn’t there a “Titanic” miniseries/TV movie with a young Catherine Zeta-Jones from the 90’s or am I just imagining that.

    Oh, and I’m guessing that the networks mostly abandoned making miniseries because reality shows (which didn’t exist back then) are MUCH cheaper to prodcue and deliver acceptable ratings, in addition to the fact that HBO and PBS do a better job with the format.

  • tracy bluth

    I agree that “The Stand” was pretty great- obviously not as good as the book, but still well made and with some great performances.
    Now if you excuse me, I’m going to go cry over The Thorn Birds (Father Ralph!!!!! Why couldn’t you just be with Meggie??!! WAH!!!!!!!!)

  • Kathy

    I remember my english class was required to watch Roots. We would discuss what we watch and write papers on it. And yes, there was a Titanic miniseries with a young Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was on CBS. I also recall, Stephen King’s It being a mini-series, also. I still don’t like clowns because of that one.

  • torry

    I remember seeing North and South with a young Patrick Swayze and it blew me away,also East of Eden with Jane Seymour.Bring back the mini-series!

  • Joe

    Grew up on mini series – everything from the campy fun of Lace, Master of the Game and Sins to the ambitious sudser North & South. Love ‘em!

  • robin

    If Julian Fellowes is involved I can’t wait to watch! Unless there is a Celine Dion theme song involved.

  • maureen

    You can’t talk about mini series without mentioning Lonesome Dove – arguably the best ever. Robert Duvall gave one of tv’s best performances. Plus Tommy Lee Jones, Diane Lane, Danny Glover, Chris Cooper, Robert Urich, Ricky Shroder, DB Sweeney, Angelica Houston, Steve Buscemi….the list goes on.

  • Jill

    Oh gosh, I LOVE The Thorn Birds!! (And Lonesome Dove too, maureen)

    However, I can’t say I have much interest in watching a Titanic mini-series.

  • Jay

    I wonder if James and Patrick Crawley, mentioned in Downton Abbey, will be characters.

  • Leilani

    The Stand was great one of the best mini-series. I miss mini-series. ABC and NBC should bring them back.
    should bring them back

  • Cameron Yarde Jnr

    As a Brit I have to say that you really did have some magnificent mini series. Roots was the grandaddy of them all and along with Rich Man, Poor Man are my all time favourite mini series.

    But there was also The Thorn Birds, Winds Of War, North & South, From Here To Eternity, Celebrity. Happy days watching them as a youngster. And thank you for mentioning Chiefs. That was another good one.

    Now I must see which of these are available on DVD.

  • Joe

    Centennial, another Richard Chamberlain show, was about 16 episodes, but was well worth it. best of the bunch. Worst was Space, oddly enough, by the same author, James Mitchner.

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