Producers of reality TV have exhibited a remarkable knack for appropriating and bending other forms of television to fit their conventions, creating unscripted versions of soap operas, family sitcoms, even crime procedurals.
No genre, though, has been cannibalized more thoroughly than the made-for-TV movie, whose basic attributes can now be found in myriad places that get there quicker, dirtier, and in a much more condensed package.
Broadcast networks have offered various rationales for largely abandoning longform programming (a term encompassing movies and miniseries). They range from its relative cost to the difficulty promoting one-shot ventures versus series, which in success can lure an audience back week after week.
The main culprit, however, is the stories networks became accustomed to telling were coopted. Movies, after all, had become all about headline-grabbing true crime, which explains how we wound up with three competing telefilms about “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher and two more on the matricidal Menendez brothers.
First, newsmagazines got into the game. Then daytime television. And then cable news and infotainment, which on closer inspection has morphed into one big, endless Lifetime movie.
CBS’ “48 Hours Mystery” is now basically a TV movie every week. And what’s Nancy Grace’s show, or Greta Van Susteren’s much of the time, but a TV movie stripped to the tawdry essentials?
This month Investigation Discovery goes them one better (or worse, really) with a series sporting the eye-catching title “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?” The episodes made available focus on women who discovered their husbands were leading elaborate double lives, serving up pain and betrayal in 22 minutes, sans commercials. And please don’t confuse that with MSNBC’s upcoming special titled (seriously) “I Married The Beltway Sniper.”
Granted, the brand of TV movie popularized during the 1990s has survived, albeit as sentimental pap on Hallmark Channel and old-fashioned “I’m tired of being a victim!” fare on Lifetime and its sister movie network.
With Showtime vacating the longform arena, HBO has become a lonely bastion of more ambitious undertakings. The pay channel’s efforts are clearly reflected in its Emmy dominance, claiming the best-movie prize 15 of the last 17 years. On this front, what the pay channel offers really does fulfill its old “It’s not TV” slogan, bearing less resemblance to TV movies than filling a void for adult dramas and biopics the theatrical business vacated.
Then there’s the miniseries, whose diminished favor can again be chronicled in stark numerical terms through the Emmys. Although Starz and a few others have begun pursuing such limited events, legitimate entries have become so scarce as to yield a mere pair of nominees each of the last two years. Tellingly, both of those races pitted an HBO war epic against a British costume drama courtesy of PBS’ “Masterpiece.”
The dwindling state of longform seems especially profound given the recent death of David L. Wolper, whose productions captured the medium’s possibilities as few have before or since.
For his part, the producer of “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds” was adamant in his contention a miniseries needed to be a true multipart enterprise to merit that designation, telling me in a 1999 interview, “Ten hours is an event. Four hours is not an event. I don’t care what they say. Four hours is a long movie.”
As for the risk associated with miniseries — as in the queasy, helpless feeling in executives’ stomachs if the first night tanks ratings-wise — Wolper harbored a similar “no guts, no glory” attitude.
“You have to have balls,” he said. “You have to say, ‘We think it’s going to work. Let’s go with it.’ Either you’re going to kill the world, or you’re going to fall on your rear end.”
The once-thriving TV movie industry that cranked out more than 200 titles a year and employed thousands of people can trace its descent to a variety of factors. Yet the primary reason might be as simple as networks devaluing the formula to the point where a newsmag segment or cable half-hour can provide the same guilty calories in a fraction of the time.
That certainly doesn’t qualify as an event. But it is an undeniable shame.