THERE WAS A LANDMARK DAYin the network television movie business last fall. ABC, CBS and NBC each began production — on the same day with the same scheduled finish day — of a movie about the Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuoco story. NBC had her rights, CBS had his and ABC had “public domain.” Each competed to be the first to reach the public and the most “authentic” version of the story. NBC got its version on the air first, Dec. 28. CBS and ABC followed six nights later , Jan. 3, running head to head, with ABC getting the highest ratings of the three.

Early in this ’92/’93 season, ABC and CBS both aired movies about Carolyn Warmus, the woman who killed her boyfriend’s wife.

So, where is this all going? More important, when and why did a great majority of the subject matter of television movies evolve into what many have described as “ambulance chasers”: true-crime stories with an emphasis on any and every permutation of a family member, or a lover, killing another?

It wasn’t always this way.

So says Jerry Isenberg, co-chairman and CEO of Hearst Entertainment, who was ABC’s first head of television movies under Barry Diller back in 1968. The official “Movie of the Week,” he reports, began on ABC as a series of 90-minute movies in 1969. They were “entertainment” pieces, some pilots and a couple of “special” movies–bios, the animated “The Point,” etc.

In the ’70s and early ’80s, the television movie evolved to what many, including Isenberg, consider to be the height of the form, in which the subjects were often social issues that feature films rarely touched. Gambling (“Winner Take All”–1975); homosexuality (“That Certain Summer”–1972); rape (“A Case of Rape”–1974); lost and abducted children (“Adam”–1983); and drunk driving (“M.A.D.D.: Mothers Against Drunk Drivers”–1983) were a few of the subjects explored.

The television movie was literally changing the consciousness of the American public about these issues. Drunk driving laws were severely stiffened as a result, missing children on milk cartons are a sad but necessary byproduct of “Adam” and rape was definitely exposed for the heinous crime it is.

ARTISTS HERETOFORE ALIEN to TV flocked to the form because of its ability to both explore interesting subject matter and to explore it in a longer length–opportunity not available elsewhere. “Sybil” (1976) gave Sally Field a role that revitalized her career completely. Nick Nolte’s career was largely launched by his appearance in “Rich Man, Poor Man” (1976).

So, when did it change? The current network vice presidents of TV movies frequently cite “The Burning Bed” (1984) and “Fatal Vision” (1984) as turning event movies. Both were true-crime stories based on books and both garnered especially high ratings.

Over the past few years, the true-crime form and pursuit of those rights and stories have escalated steadily as the networks desperately try to hold onto their eroding audience. ABC’s Judd Parkin, senior VP, television movies and miniseries, explained how “in today’s market where we’re competing with so many options for the audience, the true-crime movie has the built-in recognizability that is almost impossible to get any other way.”

Alan Wurtzel, head of research at ABC, explained this phenomenon further when he declared that, after considerable research by his department of the audience’s decision-making processes of which telepic to watch on Sunday night, ABC’s research discovered that the decision was largely made at 8:59 p.m. So the built-in recognition factor plays a major role in the viewer’s choice.

Whereas in the past, in-house network promotion, along with print coverage, was considered the major method of soliciting an audience, now it is basically determined by people saying “Oh, I saw that in ‘People.’ “

To check whether the true-crime telepic was actually performing better than any other form, I compared ratings for all firstrun TV movies that aired from Sept. 16, 1991, through Sept. 20, 1992, on the three networks in two categories: true-crime and all others. The results do indeed point to the true-crime form slightly outperforming all others.

So, the feeding frenzy continues.

Interviews with people involved in making them indicate that no one–the networks, producers, writers and directors–is happy with the escalation of this true-crime genre of television movies. It’s become a necessary part of the job to scour the papers and magazines every day, according to one development executive.

Glenda Grant, president of movies and miniseries for Hearst Entertainment, said “I never thought I’d spend my adult life tracking down murder stories!”

THE RESULT OF ALL THIS HYSTERIA is rushed movies, inadequate research, lack of perspective on the subject and money sometimes going to questionable people and not going on the screen. The morality of this “ambulance chasing” is vague. Yet the network TV business is just that, a business. If the audiences are responding to these movies, it behooves the television movie departments to make them. But at what cost?

The early examples of these kinds of movies, like “The Burning Bed,””Helter Skelter” (1976) or “Fatal Vision,” all were based on books. Careful research and the perspective of time allowed for these movies to be both commercially viable and creatively excellent. Can the same be said of the Amy Fisher movies?

The television movie form, from its inception, sought to illuminate and educate, as well as entertain. The best of these have truly had the effect of changing laws and the public’s consciousness. And, equally, these movies were commercially successful. It seems incumbent on the current generation of network executives and producers to strive to challenge conventional thought, broaden horizons, tell the stories of truly heroic people, take a chance with strong fiction and develop new talent. That’s better than rubbernecking to be the first on the air with the next lurid true crime story.

Bruce Sallan is president of television for the Lee Rich Co. Previously, he was at ABC, where he rose to VP for TV movies. Among films he produced are “God Bless the Child” and “A Killing in a Small Town.” This column is excerpted from an article written for the Producers Caucus.

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