When the Miniseries Ruled Television in the ‘70s and ‘80s

Long-form prestige television got off the ground decades before ‘The Sopranos.’ But not everyone was happy about it.
'The Thorn Birds.'
'The Thorn Birds.' / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

When it comes time to name influential television programs, shows like I Love Lucy, The Sopranos, and Saturday Night Live are almost always mentioned. Relatively few people will conjure up titles like QB VII.

They probably should, though. The 1974 television adaptation of the bestselling Leon Uris novel, QB VII—which is shorthand for Queen’s Bench, Courtroom Number 7—details the efforts of a Polish doctor (Anthony Hopkins) to restore his reputation after a writer (Ben Gazzara) accuses him of having worked in a Nazi prison camp. (Uris based the book on his own experiences being sued for libel after making a similar claim.)

ABC spared no hyperbole. At roughly six hours long and spread over two nights, it ranked among the longest made-for-television films to that point, and one the network claimed was “the most ambitious single project” that had ever aired.

Though it wasn’t strictly the first miniseries—Vanished, The Forsyte Saga, and others preceded it—the project was a ratings success and a key milestone in a fresh new format for TV. Known as the miniseries or limited series, this novelistic approach to the medium radically transformed how both executives and audiences were trained to create and consume entertainment. At one point, it was considered the most seismic development of the small screen, able to capture the attention of half the country. Some thought it would fundamentally transform the medium forever.

That wasn’t quite what happened.

Novels for Television

Emerging out of post-war America as the dominant entertainment medium in the 1950s and beyond, television wasn’t prone to taking risks. Standards and practices prohibited all but the most chaste marriages; profanity was off-limits; and few networks dared to tax the attention span of viewers. Sitcoms were a brisk 30 minutes, not including ads; dramas, one hour. Series were generally episodic and contained. It was not necessary to have caught last week’s episode of Lassie to figure out what the collie was up to the following week.

But serialized television wasn’t entirely out of the question. In 1950, CBS devoted two episodes of its Studio One anthology to an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; ABC presented five connected Davy Crockett dramas on its Disneyland anthology in 1954 and 1955; Alfred Hitchcock Presents took three episodes to unravel the Scotland Yard thriller “I Killed the Count” in 1957.

Likewise, producers in the UK didn’t feel compelled to construct shows to run indefinitely. A series could have a firm beginning, middle, and end, as was the case with 1967’s The Forsyte Saga, a limited-run BBC series about a Victorian-era family, which became a worldwide hit.

The cast of 'The Forsyte Saga' is pictured
The cast of 'The Forsyte Saga.' / J. Wilds/GettyImages

By the early 1970s, American networks were becoming more interested in the idea of such programs. NBC aired Vanished (about a missing presidential advisor) over two nights in 1971. In 1973, they ran the cop drama The Blue Knight in one-hour installments over four nights. Masterpiece Theatre, which began airing on public television in the U.S. in 1971, also demonstrated there was an audience for self-contained stories. (Its inaugural project was the 12-part The First Churchills, and the show later enjoyed a runaway success with the 1974 stateside airing of the UK hit Upstairs, Downstairs.)

For networks, it was a chance to attract actors who may not want to commit to a series for years. There was also an intrigue in something with a clear end in sight. “The perennial series may be economically expedient, but it never has been the best way to tell a story,” CBS executive Lewis Freedman said in 1973. “You never really find the truth in a tale until you reach the end, and the weekly series can never have an end.”

At the time, Freedman—who was put in charge of limited series projects for CBS—envisioned a long-form adaptation of the Margaret Mitchell novel Gone With the Wind. (That didn’t happen, but 1994 did bring an adaptation of the belated sequel, Scarlett.) NBC and ABC made their own plans, though it was ABC that seemed the most eager.

In 1971, in addition to planning QB VII, ABC commissioned an adaptation of Rich Man, Poor Man, a 1969 novel by Irwin Shaw about the emotionally volatile Jordache family (no relation to the jeans company). The project didn’t actually get a production order until several years later in 1975—just after QB VII demonstrated to the network that the format had legs.

Nick Nolte is pictured
Nick Nolte. / Herbert Dorfman/GettyImages

When it finally aired in 1976, Rich Man, Poor Man drew a large audience. In 12 hours over seven weeks, viewers grew deeply invested in the Jordache saga, particularly warring siblings Tom and Rudy, played by Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss, respectively. Taking place over a period of 22 years, Rich Man, Poor Man had something television rarely achieved: depth. By sticking to a formula—often a personal tale set across generations or against the backdrop of war—these miniseries began to feel like event programming.

“We have tapped something,” Rich Man, Poor Man producer Harve Bennett said. “For two decades, the American public has been bored and petrified by the patterns of commercial television—the sameness, the predictability.”

One thing was predictable: Networks were about to become obsessed with the miniseries.

Finding Roots

Immediately, television executives began having literary ambitions. The same year Rich Man, Poor Man aired, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, Alex Haley’s 1976 tale tracing his ancestry back centuries and to slavery, became a publishing sensation. It spent 22 weeks as the nation’s bestselling book and earned Haley the Pulitzer Prize in the Special Citations and Awards category. It had also attracted the attention of ABC, which had acquired screen rights prior to publication in 1974, though there were some reservations on the part of the network. Unlike most miniseries to that point, Roots put Black characters in the forefront. And unlike the sitcoms of the era that had predominantly Black casts (like The Jeffersons and Good Times), it would also have to reckon with a dark chapter in history.

To try and soften the blow, ABC cast Ed Asner (familiar and liked from his work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as well as the Jordache patriarch in Rich Man, Poor Man) alongside a then-unknown LeVar Burton as the young Kunta Kinte, who endures a brutal existence as an enslaved person in Virginia—a legacy that reverberates throughout subsequent generations.

Roots aired in rapid succession, with eight episodes totaling 12 hours spread out over a single week in January 1977. Reportedly, ABC figured that a quick broadcast run would be best if the show failed to catch on, owing to its challenging subject matter. But just the opposite happened, and Roots became what might be television’s first original binge watch. The first episode drew 28 million viewers. According to the Associated Press, the finale was watched by 36.4 million households, with 71 percent of TV sets that night tuning in. A Harris Survey conducted a few months later indicated 69 percent of all American adults had seen it. Other estimates put the total number of viewers at 100 million. By any metric, Roots was a massive success.

Irene Cara And Beah Richards are pictured in 'Roots'
'Roots.' / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

As The Washington Post noted, depictions of slavery on television were rare. “We bring to our television screens, for the most part, pictures in our heads about slavery that have been formed by history books, novels and movies,” Post columnist Sander Vonocur wrote. “The evening news programs, especially in the ’60s, brought us pictures of the consequences of slavery, but not of the institution itself.” But in Roots, viewers were on the slave ship with Kunta Kinte.

The phenomenon didn’t pass without controversy. Haley received criticism for plagiarizing passages from author Harold Courlander’s The African, an infraction he admitted while stating it had been accidental and that he had been given notes on the earlier book without knowing their origin; later on, Haley also fielded criticism he hadn’t traced his genealogy as distantly as he claimed. He used the word faction when describing Roots.

It didn’t matter to television audiences, who had not grappled with slavery in a manner as raw and expansive as Roots achieved. The program’s success seemed to cement the format’s importance. A sequel, 1979’s Roots: The Next Generations co-starring Marlon Brando, followed: His casting seemed to realize the earlier prediction that bigger stars would do TV if the commitment was brief.

The miniseries format was now being perceived as a sure thing. But that wasn't always the case.

ABC thought its 1977 fictional Watergate drama, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, would be a massive hit. Instead, it was only a modest one. NBC’s Centennial, which aired from 1978 to 1979, was expected to be another smash. Based on the James Michener book, the series ran for a staggering 21 hours and chronicled hundreds of years of a fictional Colorado town. Centennial stretched the limits of a limited series, and viewers tuned out.

Miniseries excess was beginning to become a burden. Even when successful, the shows betrayed a fundamental truth of television—that programs often ran at a financial loss for their studios until they could be sold into syndication. That payoff wasn’t really an option for the miniseries, which was never long enough to warrant reruns.

To make up some of the losses, producers wanted more up-front money from networks; networks demurred. As a result, productions incurred overages. The problem was compounded when networks tried using the shows as stopgap measures for holes in their schedules.

Nor were viewers unanimously approving. Some were annoyed that miniseries interrupted the recurring programs they preferred. Others found the commitment to be a hassle. Instead of watching one episode a week, they were sometimes compelled to watch two hours a night for a week at a time. What once seemed to be television’s future was becoming economically unsound.

High Seas (and High Sleaze)

Still, networks paid the bill when they felt they had a sure thing. At $22 million, 1980’s Shōgun was believed to be the most expensive television production at that time. Based on the 1975 novel by James Clavell and turned into a 600-page script, the series starred Richard Chamberlain as John Blackthorne, who washes ashore after a shipwreck in 1600s feudal Japan and inevitably gets caught between political factions. (Sean Connery, considered for the role, turned it down.)

NBC stuck its neck out with Shōgun. To capture the sense of isolation Blackthorne felt, the broadcast dispensed with subtitles and dubbing for a portion of Japanese dialogue. It was a shockingly progressive decision given the times.

“To have Japanese actors speaking anything but Japanese would have seemed to be dishonest,” producer and writer Eric Bercovici said. “Part of the mystery is not knowing what is going on.”

Richard Chamberlain, Toshiro Mifune, and Yoko Shimada are pictured in 'Shogun'
'Shōgun.' / NBC Television/GettyImages

It was a runaway success at a time the format was struggling. Already, networks were looking more toward original movies to compete with the rise of cable television. In at least one case, NBC took a completed miniseries, an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic Brave New World, and edited it down to a three-hour film.

But every time the miniseries seemed to be written off, it would come roaring back. The Winds of War, which aired on ABC in February 1983, was based on the 1971 novel by Herman Wouk and told a sprawling story of World War II that interspersed fact with fiction. At 18 hours, it was such a hit that some credited it with luring viewers from cable and back to network stations.

Following in rapid succession in March 1983 was ABC’s The Thorn Birds. Told over 10 hours and four nights, the series was based on the 1977 book by Colleen McCullough, which introduced readers to Father Ralph (Richard Chamberlain, again), a priest who grapples with his devotion to the church and his love for Meggie Cleary (Rachel Ward).

It was a hit, with ABC estimating that 80 million people watched the first episode. In a true testament to the power of the miniseries, parents Edwin and Rhunette Ferguson decided to name their son, future NFL star D’Brickashaw Ferguson, after Ralph’s last name, de Bricassart.

But it was not without controversy: The lustful priest was admonished by religious groups including the United States Catholic Conference, which labeled the show “an affront to good taste and religious sensibilities”; McDonald’s went so far as to pull a commercial during the episode in which Meggie commits adultery.

While The Thorn Birds resonated, some critics charged the format was becoming more melodramatic and lurid thanks to the success of primetime soaps like Dynasty and Dallas. Limited-run shows like 1984’s Lace, starring Phoebe Cates (Gremlins) as a sex worker-turned-movie star searching for her biological mother, were dismissed as “trashy.” (It also led to one of the most oft-quoted screen lines, as Cates confronts a group of women by uttering, “Incidentally, which one of you bitches is my mother?”)

There would still be plenty to come—1983’s alien invasion thriller V, 1985’s pre-Civil War epic North and South, and 1989’s Western Lonesome Dove, each with sequels —but as the 1980s came to a close the miniseries seemed to lose its momentum. (One anomaly: Stephen King, who had his books including The Shining, The Stand, and others adapted for television with regularity in the 1990s. King even wrote an original miniseries, 1999’s Storm of the Century.)

The idea of a series with a firm ending in sight is still viable today. Writer Craig Mazin’s nuclear disaster epic Chernobyl was a winner for HBO in 2019. And a hot book can still resonate: Apple TV+ produced 2023’s Lessons in Chemistry, starring Brie Larson as a chemist battling chauvinism; Hulu offered Fleishman Is In Trouble and Little Fires Everywhere. All were based on bestsellers. In 2024 Hulu will present a fresh adaptation of Shōgun, this time from the perspective of Lord Toranaga and the other Japanese characters who struggle with Blackthorne’s presence.

The immediacy of titles on streaming services has largely left viewers to make their own miniseries, sitting for story arcs or entire seasons before hitting the pause button. It also helps that recurring shows have taken on those once-unique serialized qualities: Breaking Bad is nothing if not one very protracted glimpse into the life of a despondent high school chemistry teacher. A novel for television is no longer novel. More often than not, it’s simply television.