Willing to pay up, cable dominates telepic arena

Genre has lost its importance among b'casters

Broadcast nets can’t seem to loosen cable’s stranglehold on quality TV movies.

Along with Emmy darling HBO, Showtime and basic cablers TNT, A&E and Lifetime have had a virtual lock on telefilm trophies for years, with HBO taking the top prize at nine of the past 10 ceremonies. Furthermore, the Big Four broadcast nets have been shut out of Emmy noms in the main category six times in the past decade.

“One could absolutely argue that the networks aren’t holding their own,” says ABC minis and movies topper Quinn Taylor. “Sometimes we don’t make movies as good as what you see on cable because of resources or material, or different demands.”

Some broadcast nets have occasionally elbowed their way into the running — CBS has intermittently been a presence via its Hallmark Hall of Fame series and ABC nabbed two mentions in 2000 — but producers and net execs agree that the kudos forecast for broadcast telefilms is grim.

Losing relevance

The longform biz on broadcast has long been under duress. Telefilms, no longer drawing the event audiences they once did, have slipped down the importance totem pole at the major nets, though they continue to be a presence: CBS and ABC prep at least a dozen a season and NBC readies five or six.

But while attracting eyeballs is on both broadcasters’ and cablers’ agenda, niche nets — such as women’s cabler Lifetime — invest more in their telepics, which help bolster the brand.

“For broadcast, we love the prestige of Emmy nominations,” ABC’s Taylor says, “but I think that HBO is more inclined to go all out because they can readily turn them into dollars.”

Some execs argue advertising pressure drives the content on broadcast — typically a grab bag of celeb biopics and quickie, ripped-from-the-headlines projects. However, basic cable execs remind that they too are ad supported.

“It’s foolish to use that as an excuse,” says Trevor Walton, Lifetime’s senior VP of original movies who was previously longform topper for CBS and Fox.

Perhaps a more logical rationale for their more adventurous product is that cablers, a mix of acquired and original programming, have more time to zero in on each original pic.

“Cable is just a natural home for TV movies,” Walton explains. “Broadcasters have to promote three, four or five original programs a night. We have much less, so we can pour our energies elsewhere.

And then there’s the “broad” part of broadcast.

“The networks have spent decades trying to be all things for all people. Because we have specific audiences, cable channels can afford to make movies that take chances and that don’t have to be for everyone,” Walton says.

A chain reaction follows: Risky material attracts A-list talent, lending cablers added cachet. In fact, eight of the nine lead acting nominees from cable pics are Oscar-nominated thesps. The list includes William H. Macy, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Paul Newman and James Woods.

B’cast plays it safe

“It’s just so competitive in the network world and the investment is so great. They have to get films that self-promote,” says David A. Rosemont, exec producer of Macy starrer “Door to Door.” “On cable, they’re not playing in such a safe zone. ‘Door’ is about the life of a door-to-door salesman. I don’t know that I could have gotten this made anywhere else except cable.”

Whether or not boldness translates into Emmy gold, the Alphabet’s Taylor confirms broadcasters are constrained in their choices. ” ‘My House in Umbria’ is a fantastic movie, but I could never have made it here.”

On the marketing end, it helps that broadcasters often talk in terms of license deals while cablers typically own their pics, making the nets all the more willing to spend the extra buck for Emmy love.

Packaged goods

“You should see the lavish packages (cable networks) send to voters. They are breathtaking,” says veteran telepic producer Howard Braunstein, who produced “Martha, Inc.” for NBC and “Ice Bound” for CBS.

Half the game is awareness, he adds. Independent producers without deep pockets fight a losing battle for their broadcast projects.

Case in point: Taylor says his network doesn’t send tapes at all. Instead, ABC relies on the studios and/or producers behind individual projects to campaign on their own behalf.

“Otherwise it gets too expensive and political having to choose between what to put our money behind.”