Rounding up suspects in demise of telepix

Exhibiting a peculiar sense of timing, the Directors Guild of America gathered to praise the made-for-TV movie at a time when the major nets have buried it.

Indeed, given the current popularity of crime procedurals, “Who killed the TV movie?” has become topic A for many in Hollywood who once made a handsome living peddling such productions back when ABC, CBS and NBC each aired a Sunday night movie. As recently as the 1990s, with cable nets seizing on original movies to make a splash, more than 200 were made annually, supporting a thriving community of independent suppliers.

Increasingly, however, cable nets decided that series, not movies, are the way to go, with channels like Showtime and Lifetime funneling resources into episodic fare. The final blow for producers came weeks ago, when CBS dropped its Sunday movie, replacing it with two of Jerry Bruckheimer’s chalk-outline dramas, “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace.”

So who’s to blame? The answer doesn’t neatly lead to a single culprit. Even so, producers have no shortage of theories, while the few optimistic ones insist the form is undergoing an evolutionary phase.

The “It’s all cyclical” argument echoed through last week’s DGA event, which co-chairman Mike Robe conceded had been planned long before the deflating news from CBS. The night’s stated goal was to highlight fine directing work in TV, with DGA VP Betty Thomas decrying “the lack of press and public recognition given directors of movies for television,” which is sort of like demanding greater appreciation of buggy-whip manufacturers.

Not surprisingly, execs sounded a trifle defensive. ABC movie senior VP Quinn Taylor, for example, quipped that he is “not the person responsible for killing” telepics, though net’s recent dud “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America” certainly didn’t help.

Producers cite a range of factors that pushed movies off the major nets, from the ascendance of episodic dramas (particularly Sunday movie-killer “Desperate Housewives”) to overall audience fragmentation. With diminished circulation, nets became more reluctant to devote precious ad budgets to promoting movies — whereas “Lost” fans know it’s on every Wednesday and don’t need to be sold each week.

Those concerns also led to a dumbing-down of subject matter, as execs decided their movies had to be “big ideas” that could be distilled to 10-second promos. And when a more provocative effort, CBS’ unflattering bio-mini “The Reagans,” caused such an uproar among conservatives that network punted the project to Showtime, well, who needs those kinds of headaches?

The question now is whether nets’ abdication will yield opportunities — and perhaps resurgent audience demand. In June, movies on opposite ends of the demographic spectrum — Lifetime’s “A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story,” about a transgender teen, and Disney Channel’s “Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior” — attracted boffo numbers by basic-cable standards. Both surpassed NBC’s chilly tune-in for hockey’s Stanley Cup final.

At the DGA event, director Frank Pierson spoke of the TV movie’s storied history, lamenting how they are too often treated like “triple-A ball” compared with the attention heaped on their big-league, feature-film brethren.

Applause is nice, but the “field of dreams” is simply finding a place to play.

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