TNT, which has been pounding the drums for "The Company," its sweeping, $30-million adaptation of Robert Littell's Cold War spy thriller with Chris O'Donnell, Michael Keaton and Alfred Molina. The six-hour miniseries, which debuted last night and airs installments the next two Sundays, is the kind of star-studded epic that network TV used to dominate, back in the days before cable outlets started pouring massive resources into original programming.
"They are doing an amazing promotional job," John Calley, the former studio boss who served as executive producer on "The Company," said last week when we spoke about his TNT project.
Calley, who originally tried to develop "The Company" as a feature, knows something about long-form events on TV. Credited with reviving Sony Pictures during his 1996-2003 tenure, he recalled working as a young production executive on NBC's landmark 1956 airing of Laurence Olivier's "Richard III," which ran for three hours including commercials, a TV record for the time. Like many industry veterans, he sees long-form drama as a unique and vital form for television.
That broadcasters have largely abandoned the made-for-TV movie and miniseries business is "heartbreaking," Calley told me last week. But he says that TNT -- which broke ratings records two summers ago with the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries "Into the West" -- has proved a better match for "The Company" than probably any broadcast outlet could be these days.
You don't have to be a former studio boss, though, to see the sharp contrast between what broadcasters and cable outlets are doing this summer.
While the traditional networks have busied themselves with stopgap reality shows like "Don't Forget the Lyrics" and the latest edition of "Big Brother" -- not to mention the usual repeats of existing series -- basic cable has been accelerating a years-in-the-making push toward original scripted fare, much of which, like "The Company," comes with lavish production values and big-name stars.
Summer remains cable's moment of opportunity, because -- despite much talk of year-round scheduling from broadcasters a few seasons back -- the big networks still cling to their traditional pattern of loading their biggest shows during the September-to-May season.
By contrast, FX has "Damages," a stylish legal thriller with Glenn Close, which bolstered a lineup that already included "Rescue Me," Denis Leary's controversial drama about New York firefighters. TNT tapped Holly Hunter to play the lead in "Saving Grace," a crime drama about a profane detective, and last week the network ordered a fourth season of "The Closer," its hit cop drama with Kyra Sedgwick.
Even AMC, which previously stuck to airing old feature films, has won warm reviews with "Mad Men," an evocative look at the advertising business in the early 1960s. And TNT is already planning another miniseries event for next summer, horror-meister Stephen King's "The Talisman."
Look at the statistics beyond this cable programming boom, and you quickly begin to understand why broadcasters continue to have trouble hanging on to their ever-sliding share of the TV audience. Research firm SNL Kagan estimates that basic- cable networks (not including HBO and Showtime) spent a total of $15.5 billion on programming costs in 2006, up 16% compared with the previous year.
TNT is airing a total of 37 hours of original scripted programming this summer, including "The Company." And that's just one network.
Cable networks will continue churning out more and more of the new stuff, predicts SNL Kagan analyst Derek Baine, because there's a dearth of new hit shows coming off the broadcast networks that make for good syndicated series. Plus, the cost of licensing theatrical movies for TV runs has gone through the roof. So the cable networks need to keep making new shows to build their audiences.
In terms of cable programming, "I don't think we're reaching a plateau," Baine said. "It's going to grow."
The main problem for the cable networks is that the audience for these big summer premieres tends to skew old. Glowing debuts for "Saving Grace" and "Mad Men" were marred somewhat by the fact that two-thirds of the audience was 50 or older. Advertisers don't like that, because they believe that younger people are more susceptible to their marketing messages.
But the demographics may be unavoidable: Middle-aged and elderly people generally watch more TV than young adults, especially during summer. So unlike their network counterparts, many cable execs have decided to forgo obsessing over the "demo" and concentrate on sheer volume.
"A show like 'The Closer,' it skews old," admitted TNT Senior Vice President Michael Wright. "But the household [rating] number is so big, it's getting a huge sampling of younger viewers too."
As for "The Company," it seems unlikely to find a lot of avid fans among the "High School Musical" crowd. After all, it's a dense, historical thriller about the birth of the CIA that skips across a decades-long timeline.
Calley was intrigued by the idea of adapting Littell's bestseller because he'd become acquainted with some former intelligence agents during a residence on Florida's exclusive Fisher Island.
"I was astonished by their capacity to feel it was appropriate for them to presume to run the world," he said.
Calley partnered with director-producer Ridley Scott in trying to adapt the novel for the movies, but the pair couldn't overcome objections from Sony, which was worried about the cost and also potential competition from Robert De Niro's similarly themed "The Good Shepherd." "They essentially felt the picture couldn't be made for less than $80 million," Calley said of "The Company."
In the end, Calley and friends made a much longer film for less than half that cost, with Germany's Tandem Communications kicking in a crucial $11 million, according to Calley.
The move to TV may have even helped the project creatively, Calley said, allowing writer Ken Nolan more time to develop the ideas in Littell's 900-page manuscript.
"Would you like to be on a gigantic screen?" Calley said. "I suppose you always would, if you like the film you've made."
But in a TV world filled with singing bees and true crime, an event like "The Company" can still be, well … an event.
"I like it better than the competition I've seen," Calley said.
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at email@example.com.