TV movies switch to cable

Oct 22, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Recognizing that they can’t be all things to all people anymore, the broadcast networks have all but relinquished the made-for-TV movie category to cable networks. As ratings for broadcasters’ original film fare eroded over the past few years, they have chosen to rely less on the made-for-TV movie, while networks like A&E, FX and Lifetime continue to forge ahead with developing and nurturing original films.
“For us, the movie-of-the-week has been given up, and now we will have the `movie of the sweep,”’ said Jeff Gaspin, NBC’s executive VP of alternative series, specials, long-form and program strategy. NBC eradicated its Sunday night movie of the week franchise during the upfront and now plans to make about a half-dozen original films a year compared with the 30 to 40 it has produced in previous years. The tried-and-true formula-woman in jeopardy, disease of the week-had begun to deteriorate in ratings during the past few years, Mr. Gaspin said.
“TV tends to be cyclical, and right now I would say movies are not that important in the overall strategy. They are important during sweeps. At NBC, movies have to prove themselves as ratings winners again,” he said.
CBS also cut back its original output this season when it eliminated the Wednesday night movie. The network will now offer about 20 to 25 movies a year as well as three miniseries, down from 40 to 50 in years past, said Sunta Izzicupo, senior VP, TV movies and miniseries, for CBS. The network still offers a Sunday night movie. An average movie-of-the-week budget is about $4 million, with another $3 million in license fees. “It’s a lot of money to spend per hour,” she said.
The culprit behind the demise of movies on broadcast has been the emergence of cable networks in the original-movie genre and the ensuing fragmentation of the TV audience.
Watching a movie is a big commitment to today’s time-strapped viewers, said Adi Kishore, an analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston. If someone is going to spend two hours watching a movie, they want to make sure it’s something they will like. If they are regular viewers of Lifetime or USA, for instance, they can be pretty sure the film fare on those networks will satisfy their appetite, he said.
Besides specialization, another advantage cable networks have is the luxury to look beyond that one premiere ratings number, said Kevin Reilly, president of entertainment at FX, which launched its movie franchise in August 2000 with “Sins of the Father,” starring Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore. Movies also serve to brand the network and drive the perception of it, he said. In addition, airing a movie about 12 times over four years is an economic model that makes it possible to recoup the license fees in more than one night’s telecast, he said.
A&E shows its movies multiple times and then runs them on the History Channel or Biography Channel as well, if appropriate. The economics are further attractive because A&E seeks subjects of a global nature so that it can co-produce with an international partner, which it has done with “Napoleon,” “Shackleton” and “Lost World.”
In 1999, A&E launched its A&E Original Movies with “Murder in a Small Town,” starring Gene Wilder. It now produces six to eight originals per year. Over the past three years, its three most-watched movies have decidedly not been movie of the week fare, with Revolutionary War film “The Crossing” attracting 3.1 million households, “Pride and Prejudice” securing 2.8 million for a three-movie average and the “Great Gatsby” scoring 2.6 million households.

While those numbers would be small potatoes at a broadcast network, they work just fine for a cable programmer. A&E isn’t looking for the high household ratings that broadcast networks need, said Allen Sabinson, senior VP, programming, A&E Network. Its goals are to further define its brand, generate positive reviews and offer an event to viewers.
HBO, cable’s trailblazer in original movies, employs a similar philosophy. Since consumers have more options these days, it’s important to “break through the clutter” and create an event, said Keri Putnam, senior VP, HBO Films.
Some broadcast movies have still been able to capture attention, like ABC’s “Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” which aired earlier this year and was nominated for 13 Emmy awards. As a whole, though, ABC has curtailed its movie offerings.
The network eliminated the Sunday night movie of the week at 9 p.m. (ET) in 1998 and now airs the “Wonderful World of Disney” on Sundays at 7 p.m., with occasional “Oprah Winfrey Presents” movies on Sunday nights and a recurring Monday movie night franchise. As cable networks have created films that once were a staple of the movie of the week, movies on broadcast just don’t feel as special anymore, said Susan Lyne, executive VP, movies and miniseries, at ABC.
While broadcasters have exhausted the movie-of-the-week formula, Lifetime has seized some of that niche and found success in it. “We do those kind of movies: contemporary American women, the problems they face in a domestic situation or relationship,” said Trevor Walton, senior VP, original movies for Lifetime, which has produced original films for more than 10 years. The network airs about one original per month. About 10 percent of the network’s film output is original.
Over the last few years, Lifetime has come into its own with movies and grown in ratings, said Mr. Walton. “Almost Golden,” the story of anchorwoman Jessica Savitch, aired in 1995 and earned a 7.9 household rating to become Lifetime’s highest-rated movie ever. This year’s “Dangerous Child” scored a 5.2 household rating, reaching nearly 4.2 million homes in its premiere on July 16, making it the network’s third-highest-rated original movie ever. Airing big blockbusters has also become tougher for broadcast networks. By the time the network run comes along, the movie has already played in theaters and on pay cable. Given the plethora of release windows, the price for features needs to drop, said Ms. Lyne.
In today’s media universe, it makes sense for broadcasters to choose their battles wisely, with content that will appeal to a broad audience and have dramatic impact, said the Yankee Group’s Mr. Kishore. For instance, NBC hopes to do that with its upcoming November miniseries “Uprising,” about Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
While the mood of America had changed since Sept. 11, and there is no clear mandate yet on what consumers want to watch, movies with a clear, definable hero who battles a foe outside the culture or family are likely to do well, said Ed Gernon, executive VP, movies and miniseries, for Alliance Atlantis Television Production.