BET is latest network leading TV movie revival

The made-for-TV movie, once considered to be on the endangered species list, is starting to make something of a comeback.

BET joins TNT and CMT in cable’s renewed push into the telepic biz with the greenlight of the police drama “Gun Hill,” starring Larenz Tate, Aisha Hinds and Tawny Cypress. Reggie Bythewood and Don Kurt, who worked together on the Fox drama series “New York Undercover,” are exec producing, with Bythewood helming from his own script.

BET is eyeing “Gun Hill” as a backdoor pilot for a series. Cabler is considering other made-for projects with the potential to be turned into series, according to Charlie Jordan Brookins, BET Networks’ senior veep of original programming.

The decision to greenlight “Gun Hill,” lensing in New York, stems from the cabler’s general push into scripted programming during the past three years under the direction of Loretha Jones, prexy of original programming.

“Our audience continues to tell us that they want more scripted television,” Brookins said. “They want great stories and characters that are complex but relatable. Our goal is to give them what they want. It makes sense for us to produce this kind of content.”

BET’s move follows the decision by CMT, another Viacom-owned cabler, in March commit significant resources to developing telepics targeted to its C&W-loving audience. (Among CMT’s first titles is a project starring singer LeAnn Rimes.) Meanwhile, TNT is back in the made-for biz with a “Mystery Movie Night” showcase bowing in November.

Telepics were a staple of the smallscreen for decades — and a source of employment for the creative community — but the popularity of the format has ebbed in the past 15 years. Broadcast nets increasingly opted to devote production and promotion resources to ongoing series.

Such cablers as Showtime, USA Network and TNT also scaled back significantly on their original movies and minis — even HBO has lowered its made-for volume as its original series have multiplied. Lifetime, Hallmark Channel and ABC Family have been the most active producers of longform fare in recent years.

The uptick in development activity is welcome news to producers like Howard Braunstein, whose Jaffe/Braunstein Films banner has been a prolific telepic producer for years. Braunstein is exec producing two of TNT’s upcoming titles, “Ricochet” and “Silent Witness.”

He’s not surprised to see a revival of the form on cable because telepics can be narrowly tailored to appeal to niche auds.

“At one point the market was flooded with TV movies — I think everyone would agree there were too many,” Braunstein said. “But when all that business went away, I think that really opened up opportunities in cable. Cable networks can do movies that are specific to their brand in a way that broadcast networks still struggle with. These kind of movies can really help brand a cable network.”

Branding is a big part of the impetus for BET’s move into longform, as the cabler wants the aud to think of it as a haven for narrative storytelling, Brookins said.

“Gun Hill” was a natural to kick off the made-for initiative because Bythewood and Kurt came in with a detailed presentation on the initial two hours as well as its potential as a series. Since BET execs let it be known they were in the market for longform pitches, there has been no shortage of intriguing material crossing Brookins’ desk. “It’s exciting to be able to delve into this area of the business,” she said.

The increase in the number of telepic buyers is good news for actors like “Gun Hill” star Tate, who previously had few opportunities to work in longform.

“I was so pleasantly surprised when I heard that BET was moving into a genre that I thought they should be in for the longest time,” Tate said. “They have an incredible audience that is loyal and supportive. I think these movies are going to serve that audience very well.”

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