Hallmark revives 'Thorn Birds' series

Sunday, March 30, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- Twenty years later, it's time to swoon anew over the forbidden passion of Father Ralph and Meggie Cleary.

"The Thorn Birds," part of the miniseries wave that once engulfed television, is running on the Hallmark Channel just as it did when it debuted on ABC in 1983: 10 hours over four consecutive nights, beginning 7 p.m. Sunday.

Hallmark found relative ratings success last year with another classic TV saga, "Roots," and hopes that the Richard Chamberlain-Rachel Ward romance can still set viewers' pulses racing.

There's a touch of irony in the fact that cable, which has steadily nibbled away at the broadcast audience, finds it worthwhile to recycle a broadcast genre now rarely seen on network schedules.

David L. Wolper, who produced "The Thorn Birds," "Roots" and "North and South," believes audiences haven't lost their taste for a long, leisurely ride. But he understands the market forces mitigating against new network projects.

"Back then, when we only had three networks, they could spend money," Wolper said, noting that ABC financed the $20 million "The Thorn Birds."

With seven networks now splitting the audience with each other and cable, such expenditures generally aren't feasible, he said.

There are occasional forays, including ABC's "Dinotopia" last year. But new miniseries are more likely to be on cable, such as the upcoming "Napoleon" (April 8-9) on A&E and "Helen of Troy" (April 20-21) on USA.

Cable cannot, however, provide the mass viewing experience that America shared back in the days of the Big Three networks.

The last episode of "Roots" was seen by an astounding 70 percent of the TV audience; more than 130 million watched at least part of the series. At its peak, "The Thorn Birds" reached 62 percent of the audience. They reign as the highest-ranked miniseries.

Hallmark, which averages a daily 404,000 viewers, would be happy to replicate its total 9 million "Roots" viewership (for the six parts) with "The Thorn Birds."

If network programming strategies have changed, so have TV drama and audience expectations. Can a slow-paced love story with a delayed romantic payoff entice audiences in these times of films edited into hyper-speed and voyeuristic reality TV romances?

Chamberlain, who stars as the conflicted priest Father Ralph de Briccasart, says yes.

"I have no reason to think it wouldn't," said the actor who became the king of the miniseries for his "Shogun," "Centennial" and "Thorn Birds" roles. "People remember it with such affection. Almost everybody who comes up to me and says hello mentions 'The Thorn Birds.'"

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