No better time for ‘Bird’ watching
Shaun Cassidy, who produces CBS’ “The Agency” (and yes, it’s that Shaun Cassidy), recently observed that he’s watching the news media “turn a war into a miniseries.”
Indeed, TV seems to transform everything into a movie or miniseries these days. “Dateline NBC” and “48 Hours Investigates” recount true-crime mysteries. The fabricated romance of “Joe Millionaire” and “The Bachelor” play out over a limited stretch like a miniseries. Even coverage of the Iraqi war has at times felt strained through this prism, with an urgent musical score and villain who -- shades of James Bond nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld -- may have multiple look-alikes.
About the only thing the major networks don’t turn into drama these days, come to think of it, are movies and miniseries. Those seldom get made, as networks offer “torn from the headlines” drama through popular crime shows or within newsmagazines.
As if to remind us just how much things have changed, then, back comes “The Thorn Birds,” which the Hallmark Channel will repeat over four consecutive nights and 10 hours -- that’s right, 10 whole hours -- beginning Sunday.
It’s a 20th anniversary telecast of the sweeping melodrama involving a tempted priest (Richard Chamberlain) and willing woman (Rachel Ward), featuring a knockout performance by Barbara Stanwyck, who lusts after him too. The epic remains one of the highest-rated programs in TV history among miniseries, ranking behind only “Roots.”
Both programs came under the aegis of David L. Wolper, a producer associated with so many epics his name ought to be officially followed by an exclamation point. His career is documented in a new autobiography, appropriately titled “Producer.”
Wolper contends the miniseries could still generate its old magic and that the formula remains simple: Find a great story and pepper it with big stars. As for the cost, which has been a deterrence to risk-averse executives, his long-stated challenge to the networks amounts to “no guts, no glory.”
“Sometimes, you’ve got to do something important, just for the pride of it,” he said, noting how ABC -- an also-ran for a quarter-century -- vaulted atop the ratings after the 12-hour “Roots” in 1977, which was followed by other big events, including “Thorn Birds.”
“A miniseries to me is event programming, to take you away from what you usually see on television, to take you into a different time and place,” he said, dismissing anything that runs a mere two nights -- the preferred form in recent times -- as not being worthy of the name.
By “event,” the 75-year-old producer also means telecasts that bring people together and spur chatter around office water-coolers. Concocting events is never easy, but the miniseries was once the most reliable method, and just a few years ago NBC still achieved that with programs such as “Gulliver’s Travels” and “The Odyssey.”
For a variety of reasons, the made-for-TV movie and particularly the miniseries have become rare birds, the latter having largely disappeared beyond productions like HBO’s World War II saga “Band of Brothers.”
Linda Voorhees, a professor of screenwriting at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, lays part of the blame on news shows, noting that programs like “Dateline” and “Primetime” “essentially do a movie of the week in 20 to 40 minutes. They establish a story line; they have a hero and a villain; and they have a beginning, middle and end that is exciting and dramatic.”
Others, myself included, say viewers have found alternative ways to scratch that itch, the faux drama of “Joe Millionaire” and “Survivor” having supplanted the serialized stories that once tantalized audiences. As for cost-conscious networks, who needs “Rich Man, Poor Man” when you can serve up “Dumb but Good-Looking Guy Pretending to be Rich Man” for a whole lot less?
As with miniseries, people need only commit to such shows for a brief period, as millions did when “Roots” premiered -- leaving restaurants empty and prompting Las Vegas shows to delay start times, as Wolper details in his book. More recently, the only entertainment to achieve a similar effect has been the finale of so-called reality shows, which delight networks by generating blockbuster ratings without having to hire Chamberlain, who delivered his lines more smoothly than “Millionaire’s” Evan Marriott.
That’s fine for programmers until “reality” becomes a more hit-miss proposition, which already appears to be happening, as networks exhaust fresh angles or hit ruts in their quest to carve out new ones.
“They’re all contrived, but now the skeletons are showing through the contrivance,” UCLA’s Voorhees said.
With hope, this will be an incentive to experiment more with miniseries or limited dramatic series, such as NBC’s drug-cartel story “Kingpin,” which the network aired for six hours during the February sweeps. Granted, the ratings were unspectacular, but the fact NBC could promote the DVD release within the last episode represents one of the new ways to offset the expense of such programming, which has also helped make Fox’s hard-to-repeat “24" viable.
Such ventures are clearly a gamble for executives, who have never enjoyed much in the way of job security. Yet Wolper -- still hoping to produce a 10-hour miniseries about the history of America, which he says would bring him out of semi-retirement -- says they must take such risks, and could start by finding producers they trust and betting on them to deliver.
“It’s like a chef,” he said, describing a job title that gets thrown around somewhat promiscuously. “You put all the right ingredients together, you’ve got a delicious stew.”
Not a bad metaphor, really, for the current state of television, where so few find the time to cook, what with fast-food being so cheap and easy.
Brian Lowry’s column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at email@example.com.
‘The Thorn Birds’
Where: The Hallmark Channel
When: 8-11 p.m. Sunday; 8-10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 8-11 p.m. April 2.
Richard Chamberlain...Father Ralph de Bricassart
Rachel Ward...Meggie Cleary
Barbara Stanwyck...Mary Carson
Christopher Plummer... Archbishop Vittorio Contini-Verchese