October 17, 2008

TV Movies Migrate to Cable, Abandon Networks

By Gary Levin

The made-for-TV movie, all but gone from the major networks, is being reinvented on cable.

In the mid-1970s, there were six weekly movies on the three broadcast networks, and as late as 1998, ABC, CBS and NBC all aired them on Sunday nights. Now none do: Instead, they offer a combined half-dozen or so titles each year.

Yet check the Saturday night lineup (a dead zone for the big guys) and you'll find new films on Lifetime, Sci Fi Channel and Hallmark, the three biggest purveyors of original movies.

Sci Fi will air 36 this year, up from 24, including this weekend's dragon tale Fire and Ice, that regularly beat some of the channel's higher-profile Friday sci-fi series. Ladies of the House, with Florence Henderson, is one of 30 wholesome Hallmark films planned this year, often featuring familiar TV stars from the 1970s.

Lifetime's Living Proof (9 ET/PT) tells the true story of Dr. Dennis Slamon (played by Harry Connick Jr.) and his quest to develop a drug for treating breast cancer.

The film is among the first major efforts to upgrade Lifetime's movie output under new chief Andrea Wong, a former ABC executive who vows to make fewer, better movies with bigger stars.

"The Lifetime movie became such a cliche that they were even being parodied on Saturday Night Live," says Proof producer Neal Meron. "It was women in jeopardy and extreme melodramatic titles. It was kind of the romance novel of the TV movie."

That's changing: Proof "has an optimistic, hopeful story to tell, and that's something we want to infuse" into the network, Wong says. Lifetime will make 40 movies this year (including 12 for spinoff Lifetime Movie Network). In the works: adaptations of novels from Patricia Cornwell and Nora Roberts. But the channels aren't abandoning staple films about victimized women: A new project is based on missing college student Natalee Holloway.

"I didn't know about the stigma attached to Lifetime movies until I got involved in the process a little bit," Connick says. "What I kept hearing was they'd make an effort to step up what they'd been doing. The project they presented to me sounded more like a feature film than something made for TV."

Unlike broadcasters, cable networks can run movies 30 or 40 times, expanding their audience -- and profit.

Sony Pictures Television, the last major-studio moviemaker, stands behind them. "I think there's value in the form even though it's often maligned," says movies chief Helen Verno.

Cable networks are content with lower-cost TV movies or big-event miniseries that can help "brand" them. A&E (The Andromeda Strain) and AMC (Broken Trail and the upcoming Prisoner remake) are fans, while TNT, ABC Family and Oxygen are among other occasional players.

Each taps its own niche. For Sci Fi, that means "classic creature feature, disaster and horror movies," filmed in low-cost locales like Bulgaria, says movies chief Tom Vitale.

Hallmark, which has its own spinoff movie channel, says its films are "all about celebration; even Westerns are about family, relationships, community," says programming chief David Kenin.

HBO has two movies and three minis this year -- Emmy-winning John Adams, Generation Kill and House of Saddam (due in December), and is prepping the 10-hour The Pacific, from the team behind Band of Brothers, due by 2010.

Craig Zadan, Meron's producing partner, says it's hard to compete with HBO's budgets and awards dominance. (The pay channel claimed five of six top Emmys last month in that category.) "It's hard to do a TV movie these days if it isn't for HBO. How do you go up against them?"

CBS, the last to abandon a weekly slot in 2006, airs a few Hallmark Hall of Fame movies a year, timed to greeting-card holidays, along with an annual Jesse Stone detective film starring Tom Selleck. ABC airs occasional films under Oprah Winfrey's banner. It won acclaim with this year's A Raisin in the Sun and is developing a remake of Peter Pan.

But networks have opted to fill vacant slots with reality shows and prefer series, which are easier to promote, can last for years and, unlike movies, sell well on DVD and internationally.

FX and Showtime dropped movies a few years ago. Movies "allow certain stories to be told that don't warrant a series, and can maybe bring you awards, but in terms of building audience loyalty, there's nothing better than a series," says Showtime programming chief Robert Greenblatt.

Still, for some, the two-hour tune-in remains a big lure.

"A lot of people have abandoned the TV movie," Wong says, "but women love movies, and that's never going to go away."

Contributing: Donna Freydkin (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>