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‘Roots’ reboot joins ‘Extant’ as networks revive miniseries

By Christopher Palmeri and Edmund Lee
Bloomberg News.

LOS ANGELES

TV viewers will see a lot of Oscar winner Halle Berry at an unusual time of year when CBS airs the 13-week sci-fi drama “Extant” in July.

Instead of introducing the series during the traditional TV season that runs from September to May, CBS will air “Extant” during what used to be rerun time – summer, when there’s less interest in TV.

Those days are gone. With more people watching on demand, on Netflix or tuning in to cable shows that debut year-round, TV programmers are ordering short “event series,” such as “Extant” and a remake of “Roots,” the miniseries from the 1970s. They’re hiring stars to draw audiences and advertising, and break up the daily TV routine, just as shows like “Holocaust” and “Shogun” did years ago.

“It makes sense on a lot of different levels,” said Todd Gordon, a vice president at Magna Global, the media buying arm of advertising company Interpublic Group of Cos. “You can attract different talent for a 13-episode run than for a full season. We all have busy lives. I don’t have the endurance for a 20-episode season.”

Fox, which recently released its 2014-2015 lineup, unveiled two 10-episode series: “Gracepoint,” based on the British TV murder-mystery “Broadchurch,” and “Wayward Pines,” from M. Night Shyamalan, who directed “The Sixth Sense.”

Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly said short-run shows with definitive endings will help the network draw audiences year-round.

NBC touted two new short series, including “A.D.,” a Biblical epic from producer Mark Burnett that opens with the crucification and resurrection of Jesus.

“How’s that for a pilot?” Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, said. NBC is leading the prime-time ratings in 18-to-49 this season for the first time in a decade, with help from pro football, the Winter Oympics, “The Voice” and “Blacklist.”

Conventional television faces growing competition from alternative programmers such as Netflix, Amazon.com and YouTube.

Prime-time audiences for the big four broadcast networks, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, are down 1.7 percent this season in the 18-to-49 age group that advertisers target, according to Nielsen data. The big four have lost 21 percent of those viewers since 2010.

Cable audiences are also shrinking. Prime-time viewers at the 35 most-watched cable networks in that age group have declined 3.2 percent this TV season, Nielsen data show.

While online viewing competes with traditional TV, new forms of distribution can cut production costs for networks, said Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp.’s CEO.

CBS’s deal for “Extant,” a Steven Spielberg-produced sci-fi featuring Berry as an astronaut trying to reconnect with her family, and the second season of last summer’s “Under the Dome,” were financed in part by Amazon.com, which is releasing the shows online for customers of its Prime service.

Cable networks, which pioneered year-round programming, are also producing more short-run programs.

A+E Networks is working on a remake of “Roots,” the 1977 miniseries that set the standard for short dramatic programs and ranked as one of the most-watched in history.

The company last year aired the miniseries “Bonnie and Clyde” on three of its channels, A&E, History and Lifetime, attracting almost 10 million viewers on its first night. The company’s networks pool their marketing dollars to promote special projects, said CEO Nancy Dubuc.

“The entire company is going to focus on ‘Roots,’ ” Dubuc said. “That is event television.”

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