In 1975, Edward Asner and Sally Struthers starred in an ABC telepic called “Hey, I’m Alive!” Thirty years later, the same title could be used to describe the plaintive cries of the handful of producers still making movies for television.
A genre that just a decade ago was thriving now finds itself barely clinging to life, a point underscored by CBS’ decision in May to kill its Sunday movie franchise after more than 20 years. The news had been expected, but that didn’t make the reality any less painful for those who still work in telepics.
“It was a very sad day when CBS announced the demise of the last network movie night,” says Once Upon a Time Prods. topper Stan Brooks (“A Season on the Brink”).
The news strikes a blow against miniseries, too, as CBS liked to use the spot to kick off its minis.
So who — or what — killed the TV movie? Brooks and other producers credit a “perfect” storm of circumstances, with reality TV being the most oft-cited culprit.
“Reality shows have become the true events,” says Storyline’s Craig Zadan, whose credits range from “Serving in Silence” to “Life With Judy,”
“‘American Idol’ has become appointment television that supersedes anything being broadcast today.”
Indeed, while Americans once flocked to watch “Roots,” “The Winds of War” or “Lonesome Dove,” the blockbuster TV events of the 21st century often involve elimination rounds and Horatio Alger stories.
Brooks agrees, noting the lower production costs for most reality shows makes them even more appealing than relatively expensive telepics. But he also puts some of the blame on network development execs.
“The network MOWs that were being made were the same thing over and over,” Brooks says. “They never pushed the envelope and instead rested on tried-and-true genres and stars, never imagining the audiencewould grow tired of it.”
Or as Zadan’s Storyline partner, Neil Meron, puts it: “The networks put the knife into themselves by exploiting the TV movie genre with all of the women-in-jeopardy and disease-of-the-week movies until they all looked the same.”
It didn’t help, Meron notes, that HBO started paying top dollar for big-name stars and directors, making “everything the networks did look pale in comparison.”
Basic cablers such as FX, TNT and even Lifetime — once home to the shlockiest telepic titles in all of television — also raised the bar.
“There were so many people making too many movies,” says CBS longform topper Bela Bajaria. “You didn’t get the foreign money you needed to make it all make financial sense.”
Ironically, even with the nets out of the weekly movie game, cablers have started cutting back. Showtime and FX barely make telepics these days, choosing to focus on series. Even HBO’s output has slowed somewhat.
But like Melissa Gilbert, Tori Spelling or any of the other scrappy heroines who once populated primetime longform, a core of telepic producers and execs is refusing to say die. CBS in particular is anxious to get out the message that it hasn’t abandoned the genre.
“We’re very much in the movie business,” Bajaria insists. Like ABC, the Eye now plans to focus on “event” productions.
Net still plans to produce three “Hallmark Hall of Fame” pics per season, and a remake of “Sybil” and six-hour sequel to “Lonesome Dove” are still moving forward.
Longform “is still a place on a network’s schedule where you can tackle certain subject matter and attract certain talent you can’t do with series,” Bajaria says.
If telepics are to survive– and perhaps flourish again– producers say it’s essential for those in the industry to commit themselves to high-quality storylines, name talent and adequate promotion.
“Producers need to raise the bar,” says Meron. “We need to take on topics that contemporary audiences are interested in, because when a TV movie works, it can have a tremendous impact.”