ABC Braves ‘Plague’ as Attitudes Shift

The network miniseries and made-for-TV movie have traditionally been an arena where TV braves tackling major social issues, from racism to abortion to the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Still, ABC’s decision to develop a miniseries based on the documentary “How to Survive a Plague” does speak perhaps to shifting attitudes, and diminished fear about advertisers fleeing from controversial material, especially in the context of gay and lesbian themes.

Admittedly, broadcasters have largely shied away from the longform arena for some time, focusing their efforts and expenditures principally on series. The success of recent events such as History’s “Hatfields & McCoys” has likely softened some of the resistance to the form, with Fox recently announcing its own development plans in the genre.

Still, it was telling to see one of the movie’s filmmakers, David France, in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter reach all the way back to “Roots” — produced more than a generation ago — in referencing a parallel to the planned project, which would focus on a group of young men, many of them HIV-positive, who (per ABC’s release) “broke the mold as radical warriors taking on Washington and the medical establishment.”

Actually, more pertinent examples would be the groundbreaking “An Early Frost” — a 1985 NBC movie about a son telling his parents he has AIDS — and before that “That Certain Summer,” a 1972 made-for about a boy coming to grips with the revelation his divorced father is gay. The mid-1990s, meanwhile, brought “Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,” an early look at the military’s discriminatory policy toward gays and lesbians.

While such projects were trailblazing, they were also historically problematic in terms of advertisers, and frequently caused the network airing them to suffer a financial hit. It’s no accident, in fact, that some of the more memorable longform projects televised in the intervening years — HBO’s “Angels in America” comes to mind — were produced for cable, where such pressures are either minimized or (in the pay realm) nonexistent.

What’s changed? A lot, from public attitudes — particularly among the young-adult cohort advertisers covet — to series that have helped mainstream gay characters, including (currently) the Ryan Murphy-produced “Glee” and “The New Normal.”

For all that, such projects are hardly devoid of controversy — conservative authors, like Ben Shapiro’s “Primetime Propaganda,” are always on the lookout for Hollywood proselytizing on behalf of liberal causes —  it’s interesting ABC would choose such a potentially provocative subject as it begins dipping its toe back into these waters.

Of course, there’s still a pretty sizable chasm between optioning a prestigious title and actually producing it. And the networks’ limited track record in regard to recent longform efforts — including ABC’s mediocre results with the Hallmark Hall of Fame since acquiring the franchise in 2011 — is enough to bring on not so much an early frost as a very TV-specific kind of chills.

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