Saga of the Week: The epic TV miniseries of the 1970s.

seventies miniseries header

Last week I got a DVD from Netflix (yes, I’m one of those antiquated creatures that still does that) which had been on my list for several months: the first two parts of an old TV miniseries called Centennial, based on the novel by James A. Michener. Though I don’t remember much about the series, I certainly remember when it was on. For many nights back in 1978 and 1979 my parents, and especially my father, were absolutely glued to it. I recalled that it was some sort of historical epic involving the settlement of the West. Last week I worked my way through the first episode and didn’t get farther than that. Though in its way it was a well-made film, in other ways it was pretty laughable, especially the bizarrely inappropriate casting, like Robert Conrad as a Quebecois fur trapper and Richard Chamberlain as a Scotsman with very unruly hair. Still, it was interesting to see this glimpse of what was once an epic event on television in the 1970s, and in its curious way a genre of its own.

Nowadays, in the era of niche cable channels and video-on-demand, the word “miniseries” doesn’t have the same meaning it had back in the 1970s and especially the 1980s, the heyday of the genre. Back in 1978, when Centennial aired, a miniseries was a huge family event. A lengthy movie of a few or perhaps numerous episodes–Centennial, one of the longest, had twelve–would be broadcast in prime-time over numerous nights, usually a week but sometimes longer. The episodes would fit into the networks’ “movie of the week” or “nightly movie” slots and usually command significantly higher advertising revenue than other shows, because the networks knew everybody would stop what they were doing and watch the whole thing. I remember in our house when Centennial (or later Shogun) came on, everything in our home literally came to a halt. Dinner had to be over, homework finished, chores done, and phone calls would be unanswered–we were watching Centennial, and nothing short of a nuclear alert could snap our family out of it!

Here is the opening scene (and establishing narration) of QB VII, the first of the classic 1970s miniseries. The  narration is by, I believe, James Mason.

The miniseries as it came to be got its start in 1974. In the spring of that year ABC aired a 6 1/2 hour movie over three parts, QB VII, a World War II-themed courtroom drama based on the lengthy 1970 novel by Leon Uris. The film starred Ben Gazzara and Anthony Hopkins. Just the day before QB VII began airing, Canada’s CBC television finished showing an 8-part series called The National Dream, about the building of the Canadian-Pacific railway. Both series got huge ratings and interested other networks in the format. These two pioneering efforts cemented the usual characteristics of miniseries: they had to be very long, based on best-selling novels (usually some sort of historical fiction), and have a lot of small speaking roles that could be given to big stars who could collectively build an “all-star cast.” That the roles were small was very important, because guest stars could shoot their parts in one or a couple of days  and not have to commit to the usual lengthy production schedule of a major theatrical movie or TV series.

The apotheosis of the 1970s TV miniseries–and a major event in American cultural history, in fact–came in January 1977 with the airing of Roots on ABC. Roots was based on the controversial 1976 novel by Alex Haley which attempted to show the institution of American slavery through the eyes of Africans and African-Americans, by focusing on several generations of a slave family. (The controversy came from Haley’s claim, later refuted in court, that the book was based on his geneaological research on his own family–in fact some parts were based on Harold Courlander’s 1967 book The African). The Roots miniseries was a staggering blockbuster, steadily sucking up millions of additional viewers over the eight consecutive nights it ran until by its final episode, on January 30, 1977 it became the third most-viewed television broadcast in world history. The series was groundbreaking in its portrayal of black history and the deep reach it had into the African-American film and theater world, featuring stars like Ben Vereen, Olivia Cole, Scatman Crothers, Richard Roundtree, Louis Gossett, Jr. and the very young LeVar Burton, later famous for Star Trek: The Next Generation, as Kunta-Kinte. Every time Roots has been rebroadcast or released on video it’s gone similarly gangbusters. It was followed by its own sequel miniseries in 1979 and a purported remake was announced as being in the works in 2012. Roots was produced by legendary impresario David L. Wolper, whose name seemed to be on every one of these epics from the ’70s.

Roots was the quintessential ’70s miniseries. Hitting all the genre tropes, it drew a staggering TV audience on its initial run in 1977.

After Roots the networks eagerly entered into a sort of apocalyptic arms race of epic miniseries, snatching up the rights to lengthy bestsellers–the verbose “airport fiction” writers James Michener, Arthur Hailey and John Jakes were uniquely well-suited for this–and emitting ever-vaster rivers of cash to mount lavish productions that would outdo their rivals. Centennial was an incredible 26 1/2 hours long and cost NBC $25 million, roughly the equivalent of $90 million in 2014 dollars. As for stars, they didn’t really seem to care if they were right for the part or not, which is how we got M*A*S*H alum Sally Kellerman as a German immigrant’s daughter and Donald Pleasance (Dr. Loomis from Halloween and Blofeld from James Bond) as a mountain man. No historical era or event was immune from miniseries treatment. The Holocaust and Pearl Harbor were both “done” in miniseries format, the latter in a slap-dash production called Pearl that cribbed the attack footage from the 1970 theatrical film Tora! Tora! Tora! (It did manage to beat The Star Wars Holiday Specialwhich aired the same night in 1978, handily in ratings). Goings-on at the White House were featured twice in 1979 miniseries, first in Backstairs at the White House about the servants at the executive mansion, then Watergate in Blind Ambition starring Rip Torn as Richard Nixon. Wherever these miniseries went they tended to drag a trail of Emmy and Golden Globe awards behind them.

Alas, the era of the big miniseries as they were in the 1970s is totally over. With the proliferation of cable and video services, TV entertainment has been atomized into a broad but shallow universe of niche interests, and broadcast networks can’t command anything close to the audiences they could 40 years ago. The economics of TV are now much different as well, making it unlikely that anyone is going to spend $90 million on a series that will only run for a few nights and not continue for years or spawn significant long-term spinoffs or sequels. Even the fiction on which these shows used to be based isn’t really there anymore in the same way. James Michener died in 1997, and the genre of “airport novels” has given way to a much more fractious universe of genre fiction often sold on e-readers (like the kind of stuff I write). While we do have wonderful modern shows like Mad Men in the 2010s, the miniseries as it existed 40 years ago is now as extinct as the dinosaurs–but the memories remain.

The “cheese factor” of 1970s miniseries is never more evident than in this clip from 1978’s CentennialCheck out Robert Conrad’s ludicrous accent, and the culturally insensitive practice of casting white people in blackface as Native Americans.

I may do did another similar article at some point in the future on miniseries from the 1980s, which were equally interesting.

The header image was made by me and incorporates a public domain photograph. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips.
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7 Comments on Saga of the Week: The epic TV miniseries of the 1970s.

  1. Centennial was a great series. I loved the book and the series. Netflix’s DVD plan is still probably the least expensive way to get most movies. We have a couple of DVD players and we use them. We laugh a lot when the cable is out and we still can watch movies 🙂

  2. Did you ever watch The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All? I think there were sexual undertones no one in my family got at the time, but I could be mistaken. It came at the tail end of network miniseries.

    • I haven’t seen it, but I recall the title. Sounds interesting! Wasn’t it also based on a novel?

      • Yes. The book was a million times better than the movie (especially since Donald Sutherland was cast as the lead–yuck!) But it wasn’t a terrible adaptation. I remember being surprised they’d pick such a literary novel for prime time viewing. I could watch Diane Lane all day anyway.

  3. I don’t remember any mini-series before Roots, but our family was glued to the TV during that one!

  4. Bill Culbertson // June 16, 2016 at 2:50 pm // Reply

    Donald Pleasance was probably cast based on his role in the movie “Will Penny” [which would be worth your time to watch. And English people were in the West, Gary Cooper’s parents, for example, emigrated from England and settled in Montana.

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