Wallowing in skategate puts webs on thin ice

THE IRONY COULD HARDLY be lost on anyone: After a week in which at least two made-for-TV movies were initiated to capitalize on the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan skategate affair, CBS pummeled the competition Sunday with the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentation “Breathing Lessons.”

The same scenario has been played out previously this season, with such notable ratings successes as CBS’ Sunday movies “Gypsy,””Jane’s House” and “To Dance With the White Dog,” none of which ended with a wife’s teenage lover shooting her abusive husband.

These observations follow a year in which telefilm content has battered television’s image, led by three Amy Fisher movies, whose combined 50-plus rating was seen by some critics as the end of civilization as we know it. For good measure there were even multiple movies about the British royal family, proving that tawdry voyeurism knows no borders.

But every time one is tempted to write off the crush toward true-crime movies with the rejoinder, “They’re just giving the public what it wants,” Hallmark trots out one of its soft and cuddly entries and does a 28 or 30 share. A prime, jaw-dropping example was “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” resulting in an immediate epiphany about the demand for “quality.”

CBS provides the clearest indicator of this split personality. The network broadcast the prestige projects mentioned above — in this case, always on Sunday, following its stately “60 Minutes” and “Murder, She Wrote” block.

That, however, is the Sunday movie. On the flip side there’s the Tuesday movie — which appropriately follows “Rescue 911,” since those two hours usually offer their share of carnage. A survey of titles this season includes “Murder of Innocence,””Terror in the Night,””Armed and Innocent,””Harmful Intent,””Precious Victims,” and our personal favorite, “Nurses on the Line: The Crash of Flight 7 .”

It can easily be said that this dichotomy also exists on the feature side, where there’s an audience for “Schindler’s List” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective ,” with room to play to both constituencies.

Movies, however, aren’t living under the same state of siege as television, which already has had its image bruised by the TV violence debate and is skating on thin ice when it comes to tacky, high-profile, true-crime topics — particularly by succumbing to the temptation of multiple Menendez and Harding projects, undercutting their pledges to “do better.”

“We want to try to find a way to succeed … without having to lean so much on that kind of product,” ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert told critics in regard to the true-crime debate last month. That’s a noble sentiment but one frequently lost on casual observers (i.e., Congress) when the webs are scoring big ratings with such movies and touting interviews with various felons on “Dateline NBC,””20/20” or “PrimeTime Live.”

The entertainment divisions also often forget that they don’t operate in a vacuum but rather get tossed in with those primetime news hours and, worst of all, syndicated strips that fall over themselves to thrust society’s vermin, unfiltered, into the media spotlight.

Why is fact-based fare so enticing? The answer lies in legitimate cynicism about what it takes to get the public’s attention in a crowded TV playground.

The allure of cases such as the Harding-Kerrigan affair or the Menendez brothers is that they’re utterly pre-sold. Because virtually everyone in the U.S. has heard of the story or witnessed the incessant news coverage, the title alone sells the project and tells the audience exactly what to expect.

What’s harder to justify is the willingness to air two or more projects dealing with the same tacky subject — which, from an image standpoint, looks a whole lot worse than distributing two Christopher Columbus movies, or “Tombstone” and “Wyatt Earp,” in the same year.

There is an obvious appetite for material about the Menendez brothers, Tonya Harding or Lorena Bobbitt, and television, as a business, has a right to capitalize on that interest. Programmers, however, must weigh the rewards of going to a tainted well against the considerable risk of appearing to wallow in it.

EXPERT VENTRILOQUISM: They haven’t blown up any trucks lately, but there’s still a credibility gap over at “Dateline NBC.”

More than one print “expert,” among them yours truly, received calls from the NBC News hour a few weeks ago when they were preparing a segment on television violence. A producer told prospective interviewees they were looking for someone to say that TV is indeed more violent than ever because there’s an audience for such programming.

Aside from a general problem with that questionable premise, why, we asked, would the show seek out a so-called expert, then dictate what it was he was supposed to say. If we’re “experts,” after all, shouldn’t we have our own opinions?

The example demonstrates the peril of having untutored researchers looking for any talking head, credibility be damned, that will provide the sound byte they need. It would also seem to underscore a peril NBC has faced before — namely, that a newsmagazine, in the wrong hands, can do violence to one’s reputation.

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