Banking on Behemoths

In ambitious gambles for both networks, this year Turner Network Television and Home Box Office will strip away the Hollywood mythology surrounding two familiar genres: the Western and ancient swords-and-sandals sagas.

TNT’s Into the West, a 12-hour miniseries from filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Television, and HBO’s series Rome, a co-production with the British Broadcasting Corp., are monumental, big-ticket undertakings for both networks.

In fact, Into the West, set to premiere June 10, and Rome, due in the fall, are shaping up to be among cable’s — if not all of television’s — biggest events this year, in terms of their cost and scope.

But corporate cousins TNT and HBO aren’t the only cable networks anteing up for big miniseries. Sci Fi Channel, whose Emmy-winning Taken reset the bar for miniseries success, will debut The Triangle in December and has another Spielberg mini, Nine Lives, in development. And next year, FX plans its first major miniseries, 10-part The Ten Commandments, executive produced by George Clooney.

With Into the West and Rome, TNT and HBO are betting on genres that have had their ups and downs. While TNT has enjoyed success with its Tom Selleck original-movie franchise, Westerns in general haven’t performed that well on TV in recent years. At the box office, the popularity of the sand-and-sandals genre peaked with Gladiator, while last year’s theatricals Troy and Alexander flopped.

TNT and HBO have a lot riding on this risky material. In HBO’s case, there’s a $100 million investment in the first 12-hour season of Rome, which is slated to continue for four years after its freshman season. With an expected high quotient of sex and violence and family intrigue, Rome is already being described as an ancient-day Sopranos.

“It’s an HBO production, and the hallmark of an HBO show is a kind of ruthless honesty, commitment to reality and no sugarcoating of the subject,” Rome writer and executive producer Bruno Heller says. “In that sense, The Sopranos demythologizes the Mafia in the same way that we hope to take this show out of the museum.”

With Into the West, a multigenerational tale of the opening of the American West pegged at roughly $50 million, TNT is looking to expand its audience.

“We don’t ever talk about actual cost,” TNT senior vice president of original programming Michael Wright says. “But it’s honest and true to say it’s the most ambitious show that TNT has ever undertaken, both from a logistical and production standpoint: 12 hours of period television is a really big physical undertaking.”

With a big marketing push planned by TNT, and Spielberg attached as executive producer, Into the West is hoping to break through TV’s clutter.

“If what you’re about is expanding your reach, a show like this has a much greater potential to do just that,” Wright says. “People who might not normally watch TNT, or who don’t even know we’re on — because of the subject matter and because of the people involved — might say, 'Hey that looks really interesting; that looks really good. I think I’ll check it out.’”

But Into the West represents multiple opportunities, according to Wright. “Ratings are a big part of what we do, but it’s not the only thing that counts for us,” he says. “We’re looking for original programming to accomplish a series of goals: ratings, reflecting the brand, expanding our reach. And they’re all somewhat equally important to us.”

As a premium service that isn’t ad-supported, HBO doesn’t have to worry about ratings. But it is hungry for cutting-edge programming that creates a buzz. HBO’s newer series, Carnivale and profane revisionist Western Deadwood haven’t turned into pop-culture phenomena like Sex and the City and The Sopranos, and Rome could fill that bill.

But Rome has had its bumps, and is $30 million above its original $70 million budget because of adjustments that were made in mid-production. Still, Rome’s first season is less pricey than HBO’s $125 million Emmy-winning Band of Brothers miniseries.

After the first three Rome episodes were shot last year in Italy, production was put on hold and an additional executive producer, Frank Doelger, brought in.

“We realized we weren’t spending enough money,” says Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment. “We weren’t getting the level of detail that we were used to. So we had to go in and really bring up a lot of the level of the production. So we wanted to stop, really take a look at what we’re doing and sort of shore up the areas that needed shoring up.”

With big-event scripted programming like Into the West and Rome, cable is stepping into the void created when the broadcast networks, after several embarrassing miniseries flops, abandoned the format to pursue less pricey reality-TV gold.

“Reality television has been able to provide broadcast with event programming: When the bachelor or the bachelorette gives the final rose; when the apprentice is hired; when the survivor has won the contest; when our American idol is chosen,” says Bill Carroll, director of programming for the Katz Television Group.

Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television’s executive vice president of research and a TV historian, says there are several reasons why epic miniseries temporarily vanished.

“The miniseries that roamed the earth in the 70s and 80s on broadcast — those dinosaurs like Thorn Birds and The Winds of War — gradually died off because of their own weight,” Brooks says.

“They were so expensive to make. Everybody was doing them … They didn’t repeat well so they don’t have much of an afterlife in syndication, either. You get a good Rockford Files, and it’ll keep you afloat for years, or a sitcom that’s successful, but not the miniseries. Who’s running The Winds of War today?”

Brooks pointed out that even TNT, once the home to pricey historical miniseries like Gettysburg, abandoned the format for awhile.

But Sci-Fi Channel’s ratings success with Spielberg’s $40 million, 20-hour Taken, which aired over 10 nights during a two-week span in 2002, re-ignited cable’s interest in the format, according to Brooks.

“Cable has something broadcasters didn’t: We have brands,” Brooks says. “And miniseries are tied to the brand of the network making them, like Taken was to Sci Fi … It gave a boost and also showed that a Sci Fi Channel was a real player with a Spielberg maxiseries like that.’’

As David Howe, Sci Fi’s general manager, put it, “Taken absolutely, uniquely put Sci Fi on the map in terms of convincing people this is not a niche cable network.”

The subject matter of Into the West and Rome, both still in production, couldn’t be more different from each other. The TNT venture is about the settling of the frontier West, while Rome kicks off in 51 B.C. in the Rome of Gaius Julius Caesar.

But the approach that both projects are trying to take to their material is remarkably similar. The producers of both Into the West and Rome say they don’t want to create stilted costume dramas or teach viewers a history lesson.

Executives at both productions say they’re looking to deliver character-driven, multi-generational stories about what day-to-day life really was like in the West and ancient Rome.

To that end, fictional characters — Indians and settlers, Caesars and soldiers — will rub shoulders with real-life historical figures.

“Steven [Spielberg] was particularly interested in telling the story of the opening of the American West, but telling it in a way that it had not been told before,” Wright says.

“It’s about what was going on in the country at that time culturally, and socially. But beyond all that, it’s a story of these two families [Native American and settler].”

TNT, which will subtitle in English the Lakota dialogue in Into the West, is also making a concerted effort to appeal to young viewers.

“We’re trying to make it really accessible to that younger audience with cast members like Keri Russell,” Wright says.

In the case of Rome, executives say the goal is to take the ancient city “out of the museum” and present it absolutely authentically, down to the smallest detail.

“I’ve done a lot a co-productions with HBO and the BBC, and quite a few historical dramas, and nothing has ever been as exciting, challenging, difficult and I think ultimately as rewarding as this promises to be: to show the world what Rome really was like based on the knowledge we have,” Doelger says.

Heller says he was fascinated with ancient Rome because, “like the early days of Westerns, there was mythology attached to the subject that was a Hollywood version of the real thing … so [with Rome] there was a great deal of space for doing something that was both very real and very refreshing and startling.”

Doelger and Heller say viewers will be in for some surprises. For example, ancient Rome wasn’t a pristine city of white marble buildings and statues: Its buildings were painted vibrant colors and covered in grime.

Gladiator fights were not as grand as in the movies, having more of a carnival-sideshow flavor with arena billboards and refreshments hawked.

But what may prove most shocking is the pagan, pre-Judeo Christian sensibility of ancient Rome, which clashes with today’s morality, according to both Heller and Doelger. For example, there are no taboos against incest.

“In Roman culture, cruelty is a virtue.” Heller says. “Mercilessness is certainly a male quality. Slavery is not even raised as a moral issue.”

TNT is pitching Into the West to advertisers now, but won’t comment on what kind of ratings it is guaranteeing sponsors or how much it will spend to market it, other than saying that the promotion will be significant.

“We are very confident that it will be one of the biggest things, if not the biggest, in TNT’s history in terms of audience,” says Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president and general manager of Turner Network Sales and Marketing.

TNT is in negotiations with several potential exclusive sponsors. “Into the West is the biggest, best example yet of Turner’s efforts — this time specifically TNT — to deliver to our audience programming that is accelerating the close of the gap between broadcast and cable,” Yaccarino says.

TNT will schedule its six two-hour installments of Into the West using its “three-play” burst strategy, namely debuting each new installment on a Friday, with repeats on Saturday and Sunday.

Despite the risks, the potential rewards of big-event programming are huge, for backend rights like DVDs and international sales. For example, RAI television in Rome has already bought Rome.

Looking back on the impact of Band of Brothers, Strauss says, “It was fairly wide-ranging. A lot of people watched it. It sold enormous numbers of DVDs. It generated great good will. The marketing had great effect. It was just exponential.”

That’s why some observers are laying odds on risky Rome.

“I would never count out the folks at HBO,” Carroll says. “They occasionally stumble, but they rarely fall.”