In what is intended to be one of the first big television projects of the new century, ABC is to present an eight-hour miniseries based on the civil rights-era books by Taylor Branch to be broadcast in January and February of 2000.

Susan Lyne, the executive vice president for movies at ABC, said she has closed a deal with Columbia Tri-Star Pictures to bring to network television "Parting the Waters," which won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize for history, and "Pillar of Fire," the second volume in Branch's planned trilogy on the civil rights movement.Columbia had been trying to develop "Parting the Waters" as a movie for nearly a decade, Branch said, and he had "absolutely despaired" of the project's ever coming to fruition because of trouble condensing the enormous amount of material to fit a feature film format.

"As I have been out promoting the second book, I detected there was less resonance of the 1960s," Branch said in a telephone interview. "I saw this history as perishable."

So when the deal was shifted to ABC, he was "extremely gratified," even though, he said, "There are things about a feature film that can be special. The movie `Gandhi' was always our model."

Helen Verno, the executive vice president for movies at Columbia, aware of the problems of adapting the book to film, took the project to Lyne and ABC.

"Telling this as a feature meant cutting it into small pieces," Lyne said. "Now we can tell so many of the dramatic stories that Taylor includes in his books."

Specifically, that will mean capturing many of the stories of lesser-known figures in the civil rights movement that Branch included in his books, though Lyne acknowledged that ABC would cast actors to play familiar historical figures.

"John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and, of course, Martin Luther King - we're looking for actors to play all of them," Lyne said.

Branch said: "I have ideas about the casting. I'm going to try to put my shoulder to the wheel on that without getting in the way."

Branch and Harry Belafonte, who had been developing the material for the movie, will work on the miniseries as producers, Branch said.

"I'm really happy this is going to get on in January of 2000," Branch said. "You can make an awfully good case that this is the freedom story of the 20th century. It's great to be able to tell it at the start of the new century.

"I think it's a peculiarly American freedom story when you can say the oppressors and the victims are both liberated."