The 'Bible' Effect and the Resurrection of TV Miniseries

Miniseries Illustration - H 2013
Illustration by: Skip Sterling

Miniseries Illustration - H 2013

Fox's "Shogun," FX's "Fargo" and Lifetime/History's "Bonnie & Clyde" are bringing life back to a genre once considered dead.

This story first appeared in the May 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Call it the Hatfields effect. Thanks to a record 14 million viewers and five Emmys for History's Hatfields & McCoys, the miniseries is seeing a resurrection across cable and broadcast TV.

The success of last year's Kevin Costner vehicle -- as well as History's recent The Bible -- has led to more than 20 limited and "event series" in development at Fox, FX, Syfy, ABC, Lifetime, Sundance and Discovery, among others. The projects range from a remake of the 1996 film Fargo (FX) to an O.J. Simpson mini (Fox). Networks are launching divisions and hiring executives in a push to lure top talent, eyeballs and cachet.

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"These aren't huge financial wins for us, but they are really good brand-defining and brand-supporting opportunities," says History executive vp Dirk Hoogstra, whose Bible averaged 11.4 million total viewers over five nights and edged even The Walking Dead in its final night.

Hatfields marked History's first foray into scripted (following The Kennedys, which it jettisoned to Reelz in 2010 for political reasons) and established the network as a destination for quality original programming. It did for History what Broken Trail did for AMC in 2006. The Robert Duvall Western scored 16 Emmy noms and four wins -- opening AMC's doors for Mad Men, which arrived a year later.

"You need to be loud and noisy to put yourself on the map with original series, and there's no better way to do it than to create a big event," says Gina Balian, who left HBO in October to join FX Productions.

It's a far cry from five years ago, when the miniseries was considered a dying genre outside of lavish premium cable plays. Balian believes broadcast networks were priced out of the mini market, where costs for HBO's Emmy-winning Band of Brothers and The Pacific ranged from $125 million to $200 million. The TV Academy, recognizing the shift, combined its miniseries and movie categories in 2011, citing a dearth of contenders.

But now, nonpremium cable networks, flush with cash from the dual revenue of ads and subscriber fees, are increasingly willing to invest to build their brands and compete for Emmy notice. In the process, the right project can become part of the national conversation, as Roots did in 1977. "With all of the time-shifting and different platforms, it's about having that TV moment that really feels special," says Hoogstra, whose upcoming projects include Houdini and Texas Rising. On April 18, the TV Academy took notice of the resurgence, resplitting the Emmy acting categories for movies and minis.

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The Big Four networks also see minis as a way to compete with live TV events and sports as well as an alternative to reality, which no longer is the seasonal ratings savior it once was. "A lot has changed in the media landscape, and the notion of creating an event that is on for a shorter period of time that really demands attention is pretty exciting," says Fox senior vp event series Shana C. Waterman. Fox is making a push with the military-themed Blood Brothers and a remake of 1980's Shogun. ABC earlier this year acquired David France's Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague for a scripted event series, one of at least six socially relevant minis in development, including one from Frida writer Gregory Nava. NBC and CBS have seemed less inclined to explore minis -- so far.

One TV studio chief laments the big cost. (Reelz's November World Without End had a reported $46 million budget.) But such entries also have huge ancillary value, particularly in international markets, and provide vehicles to attract A-list writers and performers to TV. Such is the case at FX, which greenlighted the 10-episode limited series based on the Coen brothers' Fargo as well as minis from producers Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne.

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"With the kind of movies being made now, there are a lot of people who have adult drama stories that are harder to get made," says Balian. "Television has become a really attractive place." Should Fargo prove successful in spring 2014, Balian sees it continuing as a series with a few actors returning.

Fox's goal is to have its first event series air in summer 2014. For Balian, the promise of delivering a beginning, middle and end in a short window is the hook. Of the evolving TV landscape and viewers' shorter attention spans, she says, "We're telling the audience from the poster: This is what you're going to see, and it will be satisfying."