DFHC 10/12/2011

Ask Cool Daddy, Bleary-Eyed

Dear Cool Daddy: What was TV’s first miniseries? Was it “Roots” or something earlier? I have a hunch it was something earlier, but I’m at a loss as to what.  …The Captain, in Centennial City

Dear The Captain: If there were ever a case of “depends on how you look at it,” this is it, boy! And at the outset, let me just say that I consider today’s blog just a cursory review of the question…there’s a lot more research that could be done…I just don’t have the energy. But there are at least 8 contenders, and we’ll examine the credentials of each in turn.

The problem is, there are 3 different formats that have been called a “miniseries”…and many qualifications and quibbles betwixt and between. But what separates a miniseries from a “regular” series is really quite simple.

By its very name, a “series” is seen as something that continues on the tube, week after week, year after year…be it a a sitcom, a dramatic series, a soap opera, a variety show, a game show, a talk show, a news program, even sports broadcasts, the idea is that this production will continue as long as viewers want to see it and it’s profitable to make it. But a miniseries, while it has multiple parts like a series,  is like a movie or a one-shot “special” in that it has a definite story to tell with a beginning and an end…and  in concept it is not ongoing. It does end. And even if it spawns a sequel, that ends too. And indeed, this is why most of the earliest miniseries were adaptations of novels…once the story was told, there was no place else to go. But let’s review the 3 miniseries formats…

Consecutive Night Miniseries…Unlike the traditional “see you next week!” format, the program airs one night after another until it is done…1, 2 , or all 3 hours of prime time…with perhaps a night off here and there if it’s an especially long production. This to me is the essential innovation of the miniseries genre, and upon this I will base my infallible judgement as to what the first miniseries really was…  😉 😉

Weekly Miniseries…This resembles an ordinary series, in that the installments are aired every 7 days…but when it’s over, it’s over. There may be variations…for example, the first 2 or last 2 episodes may indeed air on back-to-back nights, for greater impact. The show may even “take a break” for several weeks or months, then return to finish the story. The point is that this is how it is planned…it is not dependent on ratings or viewer reaction for it to continue. In fact, I know of no miniseries of any kind that “stopped” in the middle and was never “completed.”

2-Part Movie…Which is to say, a “made-for-TV” movie which is split into 2 parts, and is broadcast on 2 consecutive nights. And of course, on rare occasions, unusually long theatrical movies are shown on TV over 2 nights as well. You might say, well that just isn’t really a miniseries…and you’d be right, except for the fact that at the beginning of the miniseries phenomenon, then even more so as the genre became popular, 2-part movies were in no uncertain terms considered miniseries, which is part of the reason why there are so many candidates for “first.” So let’s sort them out and see what we’ve got to choose from…

(1) The Blue Knight…NBC 1973aired on 4 consecutive nights, Tuesday thru Friday beginning November 13…each episode one hour, at 10PM. The adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s novel of the same name, starring William Holden as the world-weary veteran cop on the beat, Bumper Morgan. It was made possible by Wambaugh’s success with the anthology series Police Story…I suppose you might say it was sort of a spin-off…and of course spawned a short-lived regular series 2 years later with George Kennedy. Lorimar, the company that made it, to this day considers it the first miniseries and I do too…so that’s MY answer…The Blue Knight! 

This is from Lorimar’s website, and notice they spell it with a hyphen…mini-series. Back in the day it was all one word, and indeed the term was coined early on…in TV Guide’s Fall Preview issue that year (9/8/73), they described it as a “miniseries of 4 one-hour dramas.” It would seem that at that point, the idea that it was going to be one story, not 4 stories, was not apparent to the editors. But they also mentioned a “6 hour miniseries”…that would eventually air 5 months after The Blue Knight…and that was…

(2) QB VII…ABC 1974…aired for 3 hours on Monday April 29, and for an unprecedented 3 and a half hours the following night. Besides You-Know-What, which we’ll get to in a moment, this is the one most often sited as the first. But here’s where it gets tricky, because technically QB VII is a 2-part movie! Again, based on a best-selling novel…and there are several reasons why it certainly might be considered the first, despite The Blue Knight being chronologically first. It established the idea of each part being more than one hour, the typical length of a “regular” dramatic series. More importantly, it was promoted as an event. Yes, The Blue Knight was obviously innovative in its 4-night format, but here’s what TV Guide said in the extensive article that ran the week of QB VII…

“The most ambitious, longest, and certainly the most expensive single movie project yet produced for television…a mammoth commitment by ABC…a sizable risk…everyone involved seems to possess a sense of pioneering, of participating in a very special dramatic venture.” 

It’s hard to read such commentary, and not sense a “first” in there somewhere! But notice that they do call it a “movie,” and nowhere in the article or in ABC’s advertising was the word “miniseries” used, despite it having been described that way by TV Guide the previous Fall. In fact, the full-page ad calls it an “Electrifying World Premiere,” just as a movie, theatrical or made-for-TV, would be. The Blue Knight was successful, and praised by critics, but it had nowhere near the build-up or the impact…as I mentioned, it could have been considered just a special extra-long episode of Police Story. And QB VII  got the complete cover treatment, while The Blue Knight, not so much…

But QB VII “proved the concept,” as they say…and its success told the industry you could spend lots of money…and lots of time…on one story, and that lead to…

(3)  Roots…ABC 1977…aired for 8 consecutive nights, Sunday thru Sunday beginning January 23…some nights 2 hours, other nights just 1, for a total of 12 hours, doubling the length of QB VII. Far and away most commonly cited as “the first miniseries.” And a blockbuster is was, one of the few miniseries to have a sequel, the 14-hour Roots: The Next Generations, 2 years later. Unprecedented publicity and advertising…check it out…

Roots is thus remembered as the miniseries that burst the genre wide open…it would continue to be the hottest programming format for at least the next decade. Certainly Roots deserves to be “first” in some sense, altho not technically first as we have seen. But here’s a very curious thing: notice that Roots was broadcast over 2½ years after QB VII…so what was happening in the meantime? And that’s why I had to divide “miniseries” up into 3 distinct formats….because of…

(4)  Rich Man, Poor Man…ABC 1976…9 episodes, beginning Sunday February 1st for 2 hours, 2 hours the next day Monday, then continuing for 7 more consecutive Mondays, each one hour, except the final 2, which were 2 hours long, for a total of 13 hours, spread over a month and a half. And there’s the dilemma in defining “miniseries”…at the beginning, they really hadn’t settled on the format: consecutive nights or once a week.

The trouble with calling RM, PM  the first miniseries is that several other weeklies preceded it…Moses the Lawgiver on CBS,  1-hour episodes for 6 weeks…and The Law on NBC, 1 hour followed by a 2nd hour a week later, then a 3rd hour a full 3 weeks later to wrap up the story! But do these qualify, with just hour-long segments? Like I said, the format was in a state of flux…and when QB VII  was rerun a year after its original broadcast, it was spread over 3 consecutive nights instead of its original 2…

Thus it seems that RM, PM is out as the first…and after all, the consecutive night miniseries did turn out to be the more compelling format…the “event”…altho the weekly miniseries never really went away, and there’s a reason for that, which we’ll get to. But here’s the thing: at the time, RM, PM was considered the trend-setter…TV Guide’s Fall Preview issue of 9/18/76 called it exactly that, before listing the many miniseries that were being developed in its wake, including Roots. And the fact remains, in 1975 and 1976, apart from the QBVII rerun, there were NO consecutive night miniseries. So there is a case to be made…and RM, PM  was also one of the few to merit a sequel, again a weekly.

BTW, its interesting to note that while the term “miniseries” surfaced in 1973, it was not used exclusively…”multi-part production” and “multi-parter” were common…and really, “miniseries” was from the beginning just too mundane for the network hype machine…they were officially termed “novels for televisions”…well la-dee-da, nez pah?

OK, TV know-it-alls…I mentioned the 4 leading candidates for the title “first miniseries”…but you know different?…and I haven’t mentioned yours yet? Part 2 tomorrow…

shameless plugs, an unprecedented Event for the Internet…

Podcasts at http://stolfpod.podbean.com  and   http://thewholething.podbean.com

Deep Fried Hoodsie Cups Daily Blog:    https://deepfriedhoodsiecups.wordpress.com/

Other Daily Blog at http://stolf.wordpress.com  (the legendary Stolf’s Blog)

More bloggage at  http://travelingcyst.blogspot.com  and  http://www.examiner.com/retro-pop-culture-in-watertown/mark-john-astolfi

Resume at http://travelingcyst.blogspot.com/p/resume.html

Audio samples at  http://stolfspots.podbean.com

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