Networks risk millions on longform TV productions

Mon Jun 14, 2010 4:35am EDT
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By Alex Ben Block

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The most expensive miniseries in history, "The Pacific," got a big push toward production from Steven Spielberg's dad.

After the triumphant reception for Spielberg's $125 million HBO miniseries "Band of Brothers," Spielberg's father called him, somewhat perturbed. Noting that he and his own brother had fought in the war against Japan, he asked: "What about the boys on the other side of the Atlantic? You're celebrating all those guys from Europe. We did something, too!"

Along with a flood of letters from veterans, that was the spark for the 10-hour, $195 million-plus follow-up that is now a major contender across multiple Emmy categories. More than four years in development, the venture took more than 10 months to shoot and another 18 months for post-production; involved a crew of more than 800, with more than 130 speaking parts. It is that rare example of a television production whose expense is as high as most movies, and whose ambitions are even greater.

Along with projects like Starz's "Spartacus: Blood and Sand" and History's anticipated "The Kennedys," it is one of several epic series or mega-minis that are crucially important to their networks but exceptionally challenging to create.

Such television "opens up an opportunity in the marketplace," says Nancy Dubuc, president and GM of Lifetime and History. "The viewer does want event TV when they can get it, and there's not much of it. The fact nobody else is really doing it around the dial opens up an opportunity for us to play in that arena, with limited economic risk."

Just how limited a risk is open to question.

While HBO fully financed "The Pacific" and handles its own international sales and home video, more networks typically partner with producers who split the rights. "The Kennedys," for instance, was a joint venture with Montreal-based Muse Entertainment Enterprises, which began selling foreign rights to the estimated $30 million miniseries in spring 2009, even before History was fully on board. For "Spartacus: Blood and Sand," Starz put up the entire budget of nearly $30 million, taking on the entire risk, in contrast to its upcoming miniseries, "Pillars of the Earth," where it just licensed domestic rights.

Whatever the risk, for Dubuc it is worthwhile.   Continued...