True tales dominate telepix turf

Nets slow moviemaking, focus on real life dramas

When it comes to telepics, the nets are hoping less is more this season as the number of original movies is expected to hit an all-time low after one of longform’s meekest ratings years ever.

ABC, CBS and NBC are trimming their movie production to some extent, with each having eliminated one of its movie nights over the last few seasons.

This comes as basic cable networks continue to pump up their output. USA, for example, is planning 24 original pics for the next 12 months, and many other outlets are aiming for a pic-a-month pace.

It’s estimated that 15 basic cable nets will air nearly 100 movies over the next year, up drastically from 1996, when just four nets preemed 54. On the broadcast side, ABC, NBC and CBS will air roughly 45 original pics this season, down from last season’s 59, which had declined from the previous year’s 74.

“There’s no doubt that cable has affected the network TV biz by virtue of the fact that there are so many choices for audiences, which makes it a lot tougher for broadcasters to make what were the traditional TV movies,” says ABC movies and minis topper Susan Lyne. “Their movies are less about ratings and more to raise the profile of the network, and they’re willing to put a lot more promotion into them.”

Scratching each other’s backs

But cable may also have helped the broadcast nets find their way.

“Cable movies have raised the bar by casting them with feature talent,” Lyne adds, “and they’ve made it acceptable for feature actors to do television.”

ABC last season became the clear leader in longform despite airing just 17 original movies (including miniseries), down from 22 the prior year. This season, the net won’t have a designated movie night (except for Sunday’s “Wonderful World of Disney”) although made-fors and minis will air on some Sundays and Mondays.

The Alphabet web enjoyed great success last season with biopics on Judy Garland, Shirley Temple and Anne Frank, but is planning to put only Gilda Radner under the spotlight this season. Instead, the net is thinking bigger — setting a pair of six-hour minis for sweeps (Stephen King’s “Rose Red” in February and the Hallmark sci-fi fantasy “Dinotopia” for May).

Also on tap are a remake of football-themed “Brian’s Song”; the first “Wonderful World” mini, “A Wrinkle in Time” (to air over two Sundays); and a few pics that double as back-door pilots, including “Superfire,” about an elite team of firefighters.

Over at CBS, movies topper Sunta Izzicupo can breathe a bit easier now that the net is no longer airing two movies per week. The Eye, which aired 48 originals last year and 33 the one before that, has dropped its Wednesday movie and is looking for a rebound on Sunday, where movie ratings have dipped.

“Having one movie a week will help us to concentrate our promotional resources and make for more of an uncluttered environment,” says Izzicupo, who is hopeful that a new lead-in (Richard Dreyfuss drama “The Education of Max Bickford” takes over for “Touched by an Angel”) “will let us handle more adult themes and tougher issues.”

Among the net’s offerings are minis on “Jack and the Beanstalk” (starring Matthew Modine, set for November) and “The Salem Witch Trials” (with Kirstie Alley and Alan Bates), the latter from Alliance Atlantis. CBS movies include “Crossed Over” (also from Alliance Atlantis, with Diane Keaton and Jennifer Jason Leigh) and “Fall From the Sky” (with Forest Whitaker as a National Transportation Safety Board official investigating a plane crash).

NBC continues to scale back, dropping its Sunday movie and planning only a handful of projects, primarily for sweeps. On tap are “The Matthew Shepard Story,” November-skedded “Uprising” (Leelee Sobieski in a story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, set for November) and a five-hour “Law & Order” mini for May.

Feevee plans

HBO, whose mega-expensive “Band of Brothers” 10-hour mini runs through early November, is also planning “Shot in the Heart” (based on the memoir of Gary Gilmore’s brother Mikal) for October and “Point of Origin” (Ray Liotta as a fire investigator chasing a serial arsonist) for December.

Showtime’s long list includes “The Day Reagan Was Shot” (with Richard Dreyfuss as Alexander Haig) and four-hour mini “The Feast of All Saints,” based on Anne Rice’s book and starring Peter Gallagher.

A sampling of pics on basic cable include: TNT’s “Call Me Claus” (a holiday tale with Whoopi Goldberg) and “King of Texas” (a Lone Star State-set twist on “King Lear,” with Patrick Stewart and Marcia Gay Harden); “Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk” on TBS; USA’s “Diamond of Jaru,” based on Louis L’Amour’s short story, and starring Billy Zane and Keith Carradine; and A&E’s remake of “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

And look for the Hallmark Channel (formerly Odyssey) to make more of a push into telepics now that it has the Hallmark brand in its corner.

“We’re taking a page out of the Hallmark Hall of Fame banner and combining it with what has worked on some of the Hallmark Entertainment pics,” says Hallmark topper Margaret Loesch, whose net is planning “Hans Christian Andersen” and mini “Roughing It” (with James Garner and Eric Roberts) for January.

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