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Networks embrace the miniseries, again

”The Bible,” ”Hatfields & McCoys,” and more on the horizon

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The extraordinary success of basic-cable miniseries like The Bible and Hatfields & McCoys has certainly proved inspirational for broadcast networks. A bevy of new miniseries are in the works, marking a significant bounce for a format that last saw its heyday in the ’90s with such blockbusters as NBC’s Merlin. Fox has four miniseries in development: the thriller Wayward Pines from M. Night Shyamalan; a period tale about West Point called Blood Brothers; a fresh look at James Clavell’s Shogun (which was first adapted in 1980); and an adaptation of the book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson from producer Nina Jacobson. ”There has always been great interest in miniseries,” says Shana C. Waterman, Fox’s senior VP of event series, ”but we just had to find the right fit. These have a tough edge, a Fox sensibility.” ABC, meanwhile, is adapting the Oscar-nominated documentary about the AIDS epidemic, How to Survive a Plague, into a miniseries. ”ABC is the network that brought us Roots and so many other seminal miniseries,” the film’s director, David France, told EW when the deal was announced in February. ”It is really the perfect match for this.”

Event programming like miniseries and made-for-TV movies used to be commonplace on broadcast TV, but the networks abandoned the genre by the mid-2000s because productions were costly and didn’t repeat well, and the ratings skewed old. HBO became the destination for big-ticket miniseries including 2003’s Angels in America and 2010’s The Pacific, until the History channel got into the act with last year’s Hatfields & McCoys, which earned five Emmys. And the network recently had a huge hit with Mark Burnett’s The Bible; the March 31 finale lured 11.7 million — better than what most broadcast shows average. Next up for History is a Houdini miniseries starring Adrien Brody.

The broadcast networks are still a little hesitant about venturing back into long-form territory; for now, Fox will play it safe by targeting at least one of its new miniseries for the summer of 2014. ”I grew up watching Roots when everyone in grade school was talking about it,” says Waterman. ”I don’t know if we are ever going to get back to that. But we think our projects have the potential to be a part of the popular-culture conversation.”