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07/06/2001 - The Death of Innocence

How to Produce Movies for Television

"The greater the difficulty, the more the glory in surmounting it."

-- Epicurus, philospher (341 - 271 B.C.)

The Death of Innocence

The days of Movies of The Week appearing on network television have dwindled down to a precious few. Here are some of the reasons why so-called Movies of The Week should be renamed "Movies of The Month."

ABC and NBC have announced that they are abolishing their made-for-television movie nights, and CBS has cut back to one a week from two, on Sunday nights.

l.) Pure economics is perhaps the major reason why the networks have drastically reduced the number of movies that are made for television. These days, there are more
advertiser dollars available for game shows and reality shows because that's where the audiences are more likely to tune in.

2.) Technology is another villain. People like to surf the channels, zapping their way
from one program to another. There's a sense of power and control in being able to have it your way. In addition, people have a shorter attention span. It's easier for them to commit to "Millionaire" for 15 minutes instead of staying tuned to a 2-hour movie or coming back to watch the remaining two hours of a miniseries.

4.) Competition from broadcast and pay cable has also diminished the network viewing audience. HBO, Showtime and other cable networks are focusing on more provocative themes.

At the rate movies are being made for television networks, there may come a day when the networks will announce: And then there were none.

The Golden Age of Television

"The Golden Age of Television" was a time when writers were permitted to take chances with experimental forms. Writers were allowed to grow while they developed their uplifting themes.. The dramas were "live" and the comedies truly humane. Their arrows were shot straight from the heart. More often than not, they found the bullseye.
There is no place for writers to grow anymore. Advertiser dollars prevail.

The works of Reginald Rose, Paddy Chayefsky, Blanche Hanalis, Rod Serling, Rose Leiman Goldemberg, Allan Sloane, Tad Mosel, Gerald Green, Loring Mandel, Jerome Alden, Norman Borisoff, Joan Tewkesbury and Sterling Silliphant to name a few are now reduced to ghosts from the past. They were all quality writers who had something important to say. They deeply cared and it showed in their work.

Who's To Blame?

Are the networks responsible for ringing their own death knell? Perhaps. The live dramas of the 50's and 60's are irreplaceable. For example, classic themes such as "Marty" and "Days of Wine and Roses" played on television first and then were produced as movies for theatrical release. That just doesn't happen anymore.
Network executives have often gravitated to "sameness." "Disease of the Week" and "Women in Jeopardy" themes dominated the made-for-movie nights. And then there were the so-called "event movies" ripped straight from the headlines: three versions, no less, of Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco. There were even a number of movies and mini-series about the Kennedys, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy and Jackie and Ari Onassis.

Sameness also includes predictability. From the moment most television movies open, the audience knows how the story is going to end. Network executives have always called the shots. One prominent producer-director of television movies was recently quoted as saying that a network (which he declined to name) has issued an edict to movie producers. According to the producer-director: "In the first five minutes there had to be a dolly shot and a tracking shot. They literally spelled it out."

They've Got A Little List

The networks (and cable too) have their favorites. They've assembled an approved list of actors, writers, and directors. Curiously enough, people fall in and out of favor.
It's like the flavor of the month. Someone who is bankable at ABC may not be bankable at NBC, CBS, or Fox. And when it comes to cable movies, they prefer to play movie stars who are willing to crossover to television. The main reason being that cable networks such as HBO and Showtime are subscriber services. People are paying to see actors that they can't see for free on network television. Otherwise, why would they bother to pay for cable service.

Network Dramas

Hit network one-hour dramatic series like "West Wing," "E.R." and "Law and Order" have replaced the two-hour original movies. While it's true that cable has eroded some of the network viewing audience there's still another factor that makes demands on people's time - their work and their kids. Two-paycheck families won't make the time to commit to two-hour movies or four-hour miniseries. The days of 6-hour miniseries are buried in the past. It just won't happen anymore unless the producers are powerhouses like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg whose epic WW II story, "Band of Brothers" has been produced by HBO as a 10-hour event miniseries-the most expensive ever at a cost of $140 million dollars. The reason why "Band of Brothers" was produced in today's economic climate is because Hanks and Spielberg were That's the true meaning of star power.

Back to Basics

It's all about money. A two-hour film may cost a network $3 million, sometimes a little more when there's "breakage" for an important star. On the other hand, a two-hour programming block that includes a news-magazine and a one-hour dramatic series may cost the network only $1.8 million. And a reality show may even total less at $700,000 to $800,000. Two hourlong back-to-back series episodes in the same time
period may cost $2.2 million. Do the math and you'll understand why Movies-of-The Week are no longer of interest to the networks.


Some network executives who have been around the block argue that it's a cyclical business. They point to the sitcom which was an endangered species until NBC's
"Cosby Show" in '84 obliterated the competition. And, they also point out that the game show was a dinosaur until ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" captured the viewer's attention. Perhaps there's still hope that network movies will make a comeback and capture the audience's attention.

What Works

The reason why HBO and Showtime rule when it comes to making movies for television is simply because they are airing movies that viewers cannot otherwise
see on television. Another plus is that HBO and Showtime don't broadcast intrusive commercial interruptions. The audience feels like they are watching a real movie.
In contrast, the current running time for a television film, after commercials and network promotions, ranges from 88 to 91 minutes. Only a few years ago, the movie ran for 99 or 100 minutes. Economics is at the heart of the problem. It's all about bucks.

What's the Answer

Think Bob Dylan: "The answer, my friend, is Blowin' in The Wind." Today, more and more producers of television movies are focusing on cable or feature films. It's the only way they can survive. Those producers with a social conscience may have to find more provocative themes in order to meet the needs of cable television audiences. It does not necessarily mean that they have to compromise quality for crass commercialism. Cable has proven over and over again that it's willing to play quality movies. Perhaps in the long run producers will be better off since they'll be more free of restrictions that were imposed upon them (sometimes unfairly) by the broadcast networks' Standards and Practices - which essentially acts as a censor.

Holding Fast to The Dream

The good news is that cable has become a new outlet for more daring television. In some ways, it has replaced the "Golden Age" because cable has allowed producers to present deserving themes that need to be shared with audiences who are more open and receptive to change.

Some men see things as they are,
and say why, I dream of things
that never were, and say why not."

-- Robert F.Kennedy


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