"Hatfields & CcCoys" set ratings records Memorial Day, with the three-night epic drama becoming the most-watched non-sports telecast ever for ad-supported basic cable. But aside from scoring a ratings win for History, the cable network best known for decidedly more lowbrow reality fare such as "Pawn Stars" and "Ice Road Truckers," "Hatfields & McCoys" could spark an industrywide trend toward the rebirth of a onetime TV mainstay: the miniseries.
The genre, once defined by blockbusters such as "Roots" and "Jesus of Nazareth," has in recent years been all but abandoned by broadcasters. So much so, in fact, that in 2009 and 2010 there were only two Emmy nominees for Best Miniseries. As a result, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences merged the category with Best TV Movie last year and announced last month that it will also consolidate the leading and supporting acting categories in the genres starting in 2013.
The most recent broadcast miniseries, ABC's "Titanic," run in April of this year, garnered just over 4 million viewers on its two nights.
Miniseries have lost their popularity among broadcasters for many reasons. They are costly to produce, for one thing, and as fragmented viewing pulls people's attention, there is increasing pressure to package content in digestible nuggets. If DVRs existed at the time, media experts hypothesize the number of people who tuned in to watch "Roots" live would have been significantly smaller.
HBO and PBS have filled some of the void left by broadcasters, with HBO winning six out of the last 12 Emmys for Best Miniseries, and PBS another three. The latter also scored a major viewer coup recently with "Downton Abbey."
But now that there has been a demonstrated success in "Hatfields & McCoys," expect to see more mainstream cable networks make a concerted push into the genre. "Anything that works on TV these days to the extent of "Hatfields & McCoys' will be copied," said Brad Adgate, senior VP-research at Horizon Media.
ReelzChannel, which put itself on the radar last year with the controversial miniseries "The Kennedys," announced two new miniseries last month, "Barabbas" and "World Without End."
"Barabbas" is a four-parter about the namesake character in the Bible. It follows what happened to Barabbas after Pontius Pilate freed him, opting instead to have Jesus Christ crucified. "World Without End," which boasts a $46 million production budget, is based on the Ken Follett novel of the same name and takes place after "Pillars of the Earth."
ReelzChannel is hoping to recreate the success of "The Kennedys," which premiered to 1.9 million total viewers. The subsequent episodes of the eight-part series ranged from about 700,000 viewers to 1.4 million for the finale.
While "The Kennedys" brought in a substantially smaller audience than "Hatfields & McCoys" did for ReelzChannel, which previously was relatively unknown, it gave the network the license and credibility to do more, said CEO Stan Hubbard. "These are eight-part movies; these aren't the low-quality of an old made-for-TV mini series," Mr. Hubbard said.
Both History and ReelzChannel are using miniseries as a vehicle to introduce other original content.
Prior to "The Kennedys," ReelzChannel, now in more than 63 million homes, mainly aired programming about the movies. Heading into last year's upfront it had zero original series, said Bill Rosolie, senior VP-advertising sales. This year, the cable network will go into the upfront with seven originals, including its first reality show, "Beverly Hills Pawn."
The new series also allow ReelzChannel to expand its movie-based content, creating programming that digs into the stars of its miniseries and gives a behind-the-scenes look at the time period during which the miniseries are set.
"Hatfields & McCoys" was History's first foray into the original-scripted space. It plans to follow up with its first original scripted series, "Vikings," next year.
While History is being careful not to set standards for "Vikings" based on the success of "Hatfields & McCoys," Nancy Dubuc, president of History and Lifetime networks, said the miniseries will likely give the network an advantage in the marketplace with advertisers.
Mr. Adgate said miniseries present a valuable venue for brands to introduce new creative campaigns or build an event.
"These are tentpole events that lend themselves to a lot of promotion on the side of the networks with big-name stars attached," said Noah Everist, associate director-media investments at Campbell Mithun's Compass Point Media unit. "It's a safer bet for advertisers than even traditional programming, because you know networks are investing heavily in them."
ReelzChannel sells limited ad inventory for its miniseries, with just about a quarter of the space made available, Mr. Rosolie said, mainly to make sponsoring brands stand out and not dilute the content with too many ads. "Brands like to be one of four involved in a high-quality production. This limited- sponsorship model is attractive for advertisers," he said.
"This is a premium environment that feels like an elevated platform to advertisers," Ms. Dubuc added. "They see how much we get behind these series from a marking standpoint."
Mr. Adgate, however, said he doubts any other cable miniseries will reach the audience of "Hatfields & McCoys," as several stars must align to get a hit like this, which features a compelling storyline and blockbuster names such as Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton. History's decision to air the miniseries after the broadcast season ended also likely played a part in propelling ratings .
But what happens if everyone jumps on the miniseries bandwagon? As with reality shows, Mr. Adgate said the likelihood is some will be pretty bad and turn viewers off. Still, advertisers often go where the ratings are—and if the numbers are there, they will attract dollars.