Review: Pioneers of Television – “Miniseries”

The fourth and final episode of the third season of Pioneers of Television aired this past Tuesday (February 5th) on PBS. The episode dealt with the miniseries. Only three were discussed and all three were ABC miniseries. To be fair they are three of the biggest miniseries of all time: Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), Roots (1977) and The Thorn Birds (1983).

As was the case with the three other episodes, no actual attempt was made to discuss the actual pioneers of the miniseries format, which dates back to the early 1970s when CBS aired several foreign miniseries.

Understandably, the episode kicked off with the miniseries that defines the genre, Roots, and devoted thirty minutes to it. The interviews were wonderful. All of the cast members interviewed had some good stories to tell. LeVar Burton and John Amos gave particularly good interviews.

It was Rachel Ward who stole the show with her candid thoughts about the criticism she received for her role on The Thorn Birds and how it impacted and continues to impact her life.

If Pioneers of Television returns for a fourth season, I doubt very much there will be any change in the focus of the series to actually cover television pioneers. That being said and despite the overall negative tones my reviews of this season’s episodes have taken, I would welcome additional episodes. I just don’t think there are many subjects left to cover.

7 Replies to “Review: Pioneers of Television – “Miniseries””

  1. I can’t for the life of me remember which foreign miniseries CBS aired first in the early 1970s. Would you perhaps be thinking of ABC’s August 1972 presentation of Mr. Sergei Bondarchuck’s Russsian-language WAR & PEACE to be a miniseries presentation? That was more of a split theatrical, quite the common practice in the sixties and seventies.

    I’ve always consider the first miniseries to be NBC’s November 1973 presentation of ‘The Blue Knight’ starring Mr. William Holden, four hours aired in one hour segments Tuesday through Friday during the Sweep, and it performing quite admirably. I think Mr. Marty Starger and his team at ABC drew inspiration from ‘The Blue Knight’ for their ‘Novels for Television’ miniseries strategy, the first of which was ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ played out in February-March of 1976.

    Aside from the subject matter, what was really novel about ‘Roots’ was the late January 1977 accelerated playoff over eight consecutive nights (a tactic later used by the Alphabet for ‘Washington: Behind Closed Doors’ and ‘The Winds of War’), which came about, as I remember, partly because ABC didn’t want to stretch the miniseries into the February Sweep thinking it would diminish its dramatic impact (and they were right).

    I’ve enjoyed the ‘Pioneers of Television’ series so far, and I agree there’s not much left in terms of history that hasn’t been dealt with. One topic might be news programming…the nightly news and documentary series started about the same time, followed by the morning news shows and then the newsmagazine concepts. Another topic might be some of the genres not covered: anthologies, comedy-music variety series, legalers, medicos, animated could all merit an hour. Even gamers, talkers or reality could all merit some sort of look-see.

    1. DuMont, the miniseries I was referring to were the six-part The Six Wives of Henry VIII (produced by the BBC), which CBS aired from August-September 1971 and the five-part The Life of Leonardo da Vinci (produced for Italian television), which CBS aired from August-September 1972.

      There was also NBC’s five-part The Search for the Nile (co-produced by the BBC and Time-Life) which aired from January-February 1972.

      NBC’s The Blue Knight could certainly be called the first miniseries produced by one of the networks rather than purchased from overseas. But there was NBC’s Vanished, aired over two consecutive nights in March 1971, that could lay claim to the title as well. Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that a miniseries has to have at least three parts or else its just a two-part made-for-TV movie.

      1. Right you are. I had forgotten about these imports completely.

        I think ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ may have been rated as a summer series and that’s why I don’t have a record of it immediately at hand. I may be able to dig up a summer series rating for it by foraging old files. I seem to remember Mobil sponsoring it, but I might be confusing their sponsorship for the later PBS airing of it.

        My records indicate that ‘The Life of Leonardo da Vinci’ played on CBS over two nights, with Part 1 airing Sun.Aug.13/1972 and rating 12.2HH/24% and Part 2 airing Sun.Aug.20/1972 and rating 12.5HH/24%. I’m not absolutely sure, but I think CBS aired it in three hour and two hour blocks.

        ‘The Search for the Nile’ aired in four parts on NBC, with Parts 1&2 airing Tue.Jan.25/1972 rating 13.6HH/20%, Part 3 airing Tue.Feb.1/1972 rating 14.4HH/22%, Part 4 airing Tue.Feb.15/1972 rating 12.7HH/19%, and Part 5 airing Tue.Feb.22/1972 rating 11.4HH/17%. Looking back, that’s pretty high-minded cultural programming for the February Sweep…networks usually aired this type of fare during black weeks.

        I agree with your differentiation of two-part telefilms like VANISHED from miniseries, even though I classified last years ‘Titanic’ as a miniseries despite its four hours being split over two nights. VANISHED Part 1 rated 21.1HH/33% on Mon.Mar.8/1971 and VANISHED Part 2 rated 20.8HH/33% on Tue.Mar.9/1971.

  2. I understand that the three mini series profiled were the biggest box office smashes of the time. All three were groundbreaking. And Roots still hold the record for that kind of production. But that still does not alter the fact the the title of the series is “Pioneers of Television.” Therefore the first known and recognized (At least US produced) mini series was “Vanished” over two nights and premiered in 1971 on NBC, six years before Roots. The producers of “Pioneers of Television” do not get to have it both ways. Claim to document and tell the story of a historical record under the guise of the pioneers of television and then ignore the production that launched the genre, That is just plain sloppy bad research, or worse yet ignorance.

  3. I think Rachel Ward’s views on THE THORN BIRDS were astounding and insightful. Probably the most candid and honest of the interviews. Not every star is all that crazy about all the work that they have done.

  4. In the modern sense, I too consider “The Blue Knight” as the first miniseries, since I put 2-part movies in a different category. But here are 2 outlier possibilities : “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”…based on a book, it was of course a documentary, but it ran for 3 nights, an hour each night, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday March 6-9, 1968. Or how about a miniseries that only had one episode…huh? ABC’s documentary “Africa” aired Sept 10, 1967 for 4 hours 7-11pm. If it had been produced 5 years later, don’t you think it would have been spread over 2 or even 3 nights?

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