Upfront 2003: The Programmers – Screen Test

When CBS announced earlier this month that it would retain its Sunday Night at the Movies franchise, made-fors and theatricals on network television got a much-needed reprieve. Prior to the announcement, speculation even within CBS over whether the network would abandon its movie block underscored the precarious position held by the long-form genre on most prime-time lineups.

Although still a staple of network schedules, the value of telefilms has greatly diminished throughout the past decade, as has that of theatricals. Most industry analysts cite changing technologies as the major cause of the decline. But some television executives blame themselves. Whether they were churning out true crime, women-in-jeopardy or disease-of-the-week movies, programmers now acknowledge they flooded the marketplace with all-too-similar fare. And it backfired.

“As with any business, if something works, you do it again and again, until we were all telling the same story,” says Quinn Taylor, senior vp of movies and miniseries at ABC. “As a group, we didn’t police ourselves in that regard.”

Cable’s advent has also impacted the role of the made-fors on network television. With the cost of series production out of the range of most fledgling cablers, longform became a more frugal way to enter the originals business. “Cable became really aggressive with their own movies of the week,” says Jeff Gaspin, NBC’s top longform executive. “The genre became much more of a commodity on the TV landscape and, consequently, our ability to promote them decreased.”

What’s more, without the need to draw a network-sized audience, most cable channels discovered they could tackle subject matter from which the broadcast networks increasingly had shied away. “The network TV movie once was a place where the audience could experience good storytelling that explored the human condition,” says David Rosemont, a veteran longform producer whose credits include the 2002 TNT film Door-to-Door, starring William H. Macy. “In cable, we now have more freedom to do what we used to do on the networks.”

If anyone has felt the impact of made-fors’ diminshed value, it’s the suppliers themselves. Whereas a decade ago there were close to 250 suppliers feeding a network ideas, ABC’s Taylor says that number has been cut in half, at least. Among those who have borne the brunt of such cutbacks are producers like Rosemont, who began his made-for career in 1984. “The made-for-TV movie essentially became a second-class citizen on the networks,” he says, adding that it was the growing made-for market in cable that saved him.

Equally impacted by cable’s rise were theatricals. With pay and basic cable nets putting up big money to secure first broadcast rights to movies, and with films moving from theaters to video and DVD faster than ever before, network premieres increasingly have lost their lustre. What’s more, the popularity of video and DVD, combined with pay cable’s uninterrupted broadcasts of theatricals, have made the ad-supported networks’ broadcasts of those same theatricals anachronistic.

“As a movie lover myself, formatting a theatrical for television often can compromise the integrity of that movie,” says Shari Anne Brill, vp/director of programming services at Carat USA. “It’s like the difference between a real potato and reconstituted potato flakes.”

But even if technology has diluted the value of theatricals to the networks, NBC’s Gaspin says there are still titles that work—at the right economics. One of the network’s most recent acquisitions was the Oscar-winning musical Chicago. “There’s no surprise ending. The narrative is not that important. It’s a fun, entertaining movie that we believe you can watch more than once. So, even if you’ve seen it, you still might watch it again,” Gaspin says. “And it’s a high-end, upscale title that will attract high-end viewers.”

Diminished as their value might be, made-fors continue to work for the networks. CBS drew big numbers this month both for its Hitler biopic and Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast of John Grisham’s A Painted House, which got a 12.3/19 share, with a 10 share for viewers 18-49. The network recently announced it signed Mary Tyler Moore to star in the made-for version of Anna Quindlen’s best-selling novel Blessings next season.

NBC, which also scored this month with its movie about Three’s Company and Martha Stewart biopic, announced that Kim Delaney (Philly) will star next season in the earthquake thriller 10.5 and that Jenny Garth (Beverly Hills, 90210) will star in the holiday-themed Secret Santa. Meanwhile, ABC is moving forward with a Natalie Wood biopic and, under the Oprah Winfrey Presents banner, a made-for version of author Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, with Halle Berry.

If these projects share a common theme, it’s their marketability. “You need concepts that promote themselves,” says ABC’s Taylor. Whether that means biographical films that focus on controversial figures such as Hitler and Martha Stewart, or real-life events like the Pennsylvania coal miners’ story, networks are concentrating on the movie-as-event concept. “A project must grab your attention immediately,” Taylor says.

NBC’s Gaspin agrees, describing the net’s earthquake movie 10.5 as a “pre-sold concept” that harkens back to the days of Towering Inferno producer Irwin Allen. “You kind of get it without much of an explanation,” he explains.

Among the most promotable subjects for TV movies are those which occupy a place in the public’s consciousness: news events. The war in Iraq provided one of the year’s most compelling stories with the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, one of several U.S. soldiers captured by Iraqi forces. Within days of Lynch’s rescue, NBC announced plans for a telefilm about the event. “These are titles that the public is predisposed either to watch or not watch,” says Gaspin.

The network is so confident about the prospects of the Lynch movie that it is going ahead with plans to film, without yet securing the rights to, Lynch’s personal story. Gaspin likened the network’s approach to filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s treatment of the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan. As Ryan focused on soldiers besides the title character, so will the Lynch movie. “This is much more about the ambush and rescue of the 507,” Gaspin explains, referring to Lynch’s unit. “If we’re able to retain the rights to her story, we’ll be able to incorporate her personal story into the film. But even without it, it’s still one of the greatest rescues in American history.”

Before it chased the Lynch story, NBC was pursuing a movie based on the abduction and rescue of Utah teen Elizabeth Smart. Ultimately, however, NBC and other networks passed. ABC’s Taylor says the subject matter was just too risky. “It’s a compelling story, but the question is, Is it a story that the sales department wants you to tell?”

Real-life kidnapping tales have long provided Hollywood with all of the requisite drama for storytelling. But because Smart’s ordeal may also have included sexual abuse and the assault of a minor, the story’s subject matter is basically off limits to the networks, Taylor explains. “To make the best movie possible, you don’t want to avoid the white elephant in the room,” the executive says. “But if Standards and Practices places an advisory on the movie, advertisers will balk, and that creates a domino effect.”

Even if a network went ahead with the Smart story, not everyone is convinced it would draw an audience. Some advertisers say that the social and technological transformations that have taken place throughout the TV industry over the past decade have further marginalized such longform subject matter.

“These issues are endlessly explored on daytime talk shows and cable news networks,” says John Rash, senior vp/director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun. Rash points to the investigation into the murder of Laci Peterson, the California mother-to-be whose husband, Scott Peterson, was charged with her murder after her body was recovered last month. “A generation ago, this story would have ended up on the Sunday night movie of the week,” says Rash. “But it’s now carved over by other entities, making a movie version increasingly irrelevant.”

Rash seems more optimistic about the future of theatricals on network TV, noting that high-profile films can still provide networks with a ratings bump, especially during sweeps. “A big movie often displays the rare ability to get the younger demographics to watch network television,” he says.

Steve Sternberg, senior vp/director of audience analysis at Magna Global USA, says that as long as original series fail on the networks, the need for theatricals will remain, “wherever the schedule dictates.” He adds that made-fors may even have a better chance of survival than theatricals because “people haven’t seen them before.”

All of which leads most executives to dismiss the notion that made-fors and theatricals on network television are headed for extinction. “I think there will always be the need for a movie, even if it’s only three to six times a year,” says ABC’s Taylor. “The networks still need us either to jump-start a sweeps or bring it home with gusto.”

A.J. Frutkin is a senior editor for Mediaweek.