Webs reduce pix in sked mix

Nets touting new skeins at the upfronts

Theatrical movies have fallen out of favor at the broadcast networks.

“Movies were conspicuous by their absence at the network upfronts,” says Bob Flood, senior VP and director of national TV for Optimedia, referring to the nets’ preseason presentation to advertisers in May. “Movies took a back seat — the networks spent most of the time touting their series.”

John Rash, senior VP and director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun Esty, says, “Both theatricals and made-for-TV movies are playing an increasingly smaller role in the networks’ primetime schedules.”

The reason broadcasters are falling out of love with theatricals starts with the battering that movies take when distributors run them through all the windows that claim dibs on the titles before they wind up on network — videos, DVDs, pay-per-view and the likes of HBO.

To no one’s surprise, movie ratings on the networks have fallen faster over the past few years than the average ratings for sitcoms and drama series.

This grim outlook has resulted in the steady disappearance of movie nights from network schedules. There are no movie nights this fall on Fox and the WB. CBS, NBC and UPN each have one. ABC has two, but one of those is the all-family “Wonderful World of Disney” franchise, a mix of theatricals and made-fors.

Big-grossing movies can still hook viewers during crucial sweep periods, however, so the cupboard is not completely bare of such titles engineering their broadcast premiere in the 2002-03 season. CBS promises “Mission: Impossible 2,” “Wild Wild West” and “The Cider House Rules.” Fox includes “Matrix,” “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “X-Men.” NBC’s theatricals include “Erin Brockovich,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “The Bone Collector.” ABC will draw on “Gladiator” and “What Lies Beneath.”

But the nets bought many of these pictures two or three years ago, when there was a bull market in theatricals, and advertisers were spending silos-full of money on 30-second spots.

Not only has Madison Avenue tightened its purse strings, but cable networks like USA, FX and Turner’s TBS and TNT have raised the ante by outbidding broadcast networks for the first play of high-visibility theatricals.

Just to stay in the game, says Brad Adgate, head of research for Horizon Media, the broadcast networks may have to rely more and more on their major-studio siblings for sweeps-month movies: ABC on Touchstone and Walt Disney Pictures; CBS and UPN on Paramount; Fox on Twentieth Century Fox; and the WB on Warner Bros. and New Line.

Jeff Gaspin, executive VP of NBC, says the only movies he’ll greenlight are “pictures that will stand out as events,” citing “The Muppet Christmas Movie,” a remake of Stephen King’s “Carrie,” an adaptation of John Patterson’s “1st to Die” and two movies resurrecting “Hunter,” with Fred Dryer returning in the title role of the hard-bitten detective from the 1984-91 NBC series.

CBS will broaden the scope of its Sunday-night movies, adding to its Hallmark-type family dramas such original titles as “Boston Stranglers,” “The Crooked E: The Inside Story of Enron,” “Salem Witches” and “Treason: The Robert Hanssen Story.”

ABC’s original movies, says Quinn Taylor, senior VP of motion pictures for TV and miniseries, will also be wide ranging. There’ll be “Wonderful World of Disney” fare like “Nancy Drew” and also adult originals such as “Columbo Loves Night Life,” Oprah Winfrey’s “Their Eyes Are Watching God” and the miniseries “Dreamkeeper” from Robert Halmi.

But will any of these theatricals and made-fors break through and harvest big Nielsen ratings for their networks? Lisa Mateas, a TV consultant and former senior VP of programming for TNT, doubts it.

“Movies are all over the tube — you can get them in a million ways,” Mateas says. “They’re like wallpaper: Pretty soon you won’t even notice them anymore.”