Tough Times for Telepics

Nov 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When CBS pulled its big-event sweeps miniseries “The Reagans” off the network last week, it served as a reminder that producers of made-for-TV movies have ever fewer places to sell their movies if they want to capture a wide national audience.
There was a time when ABC, NBC and Fox, as well as CBS, all had movie nights that presented a mix of theatrical titles and made-for-television movies. Today many of those original movies are done for pay TV, which has more money to spend and can air them over and over. For producers, the difference is that pay cable typically reaches far fewer viewers.
This season, CBS is the only broadcast network that still has a weekly movie franchise that includes originals, outside of ABC’s kid-friendly “Wonderful World of Disney”.
Now even CBS’s Sunday movie slot seems in jeopardy. The economics for keeping a TV movie franchise alive are more difficult than ever. CBS declined to discuss the subject, but the numbers tell the story.
A typical telefilm costs CBS about $3 million to produce. The Reagan miniseries reportedly cost closer to $9 million to make. Now consider the return. An average 30-second spot in CBS’s Sunday movie costs about $67,000, according to Advertising Age’s Fall 2003 Prime-Time Pricing Survey. That means the Sunday portion of the “Reagans” miniseries would generate about $2.7 million worth of ad revenue and the Tuesday airing another $2.7 million.
Even though CBS likely got a higher ad rate for the miniseries, with much of the commercial time sold during the upfront, it was unlikely to cover the license fee paid to the producer, Sony Pictures Television. CBS would typically also get a second run to help make up the difference and even turn a profit. On a typical two-hour original movie, where CBS also gets a second run, the deal would include giving CBS the cable, home video and international rights-all of which help make up the deficit.
But telefilms aren’t nearly as profitable as regular series can be. While CBS’s Sunday movie often wins its time slot in total viewers, its competitors are winning the ad dollar race. ABC’s “Alias” averages about $171,000 per 30-second spot, NBC’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” averages about $197,000 a spot and Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” averages a whopping $252,000 a spot. All of those shows bring in a young adult audience, while CBS’s Sunday movie skews older and female.
“If you are targeting older women, it’s a relatively easy target to get,” said Peter Butchen, senior VP, group director, national broadcast, for Initiative. “No one’s really going to pay a premium for it.”
But advertisers don’t mind buying CBS’s movie, he said, because it’s generally a safe buy and it helps bring down the cost of an advertiser’s overall ad package. Most agree that running two younger drama series on Sunday nights would be more economically beneficial to CBS. The average license fee for a first-year drama series is about $1.2 million an episode. Two series, at the cost of $2.4 million each week, would be cheaper than buying a movie, and the series most likely would generate greater ad revenue for the network.
CBS has had a very successful year so far with its dramas-“Joan of Arcadia,” “Navy NCIS,” “The Handler” and “Cold Case” were picked up for the full season-and if they continue to perform well, CBS could run into a time slot shortage next year, making the Sunday spot more and more attractive.
CBS’s Sunday movie ratings took a dive last season, dropping 23 percent in adults 18 to 49 and 18 percent in total viewers from the year before. Under the first slate of programming by movies and miniseries chief Bela Bajaria, CBS strayed from its traditional feel-good movie of the week (think “Hallmark Hall of Fame” or “The Christmas Shoes”) with some edgier fare-such as “The Crooked E,” a movie about the Enron scandal, and the miniseries “Master Spy: The Robert Hanssen Story”-with mixed results.
At the Television Critics Association press tour in July, CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves told critics that this year CBS would be going back to its roots, and had a lineup of female-oriented movies in place.
So far this year, the CBS Sunday movie is averaging 11.51 million viewers, up 26 percent from last year’s average, and a 3.2/8 in adults 18 to 49, up 10 percent from last year.
To have a successful movie night, “You have to be more selective,” said Ken Gross, manager and producer at Ken Gross Management Group, who is a producer of the upcoming film “Finding John Christmas” with Dan Blatt Productions. “You have to really target a specific demographic and subject matter.”
While the subject matter of most successful CBS movies is fairly benign, the network hasn’t been afraid to take on controversial subjects. Last year, CBS aired the two-part miniseries “Hitler: The Rise of Evil,” which drew protests that the movie humanized Adolf Hitler and made him a sympathetic character. Mr. Moonves defended the mini and didn’t cancel it. However, in that case the protests came before the miniseries had been shot, so the network was able to make changes to the script. With the maelstrom of controversy CBS has endured by tackling riskier topics and the fact that economics work in favor of series over movies, it’s easy to make a case that made-for-TV movies are more trouble than they’re worth.
However, the demise of CBS’s Sunday movie has been the subject of speculation for years, and there’s no indication the network plans to get rid of it anytime soon. Just last summer at the press tour, Mr. Moonves addressed the issue, saying the network kept the movie because “We felt the movie of the week was part of our schedule, and we liked the idea of having it there.”
CBS also gave the movie a much stronger lead-in with the new Jerry Bruckheimer drama “Cold Case” instead of the sitcom lead-in it had the year before. Mr. Moonves has always been a fan of made-for-TV movies, having spent the early part of his career as VP of movies and miniseries at 20th Century Fox Television and later working as head of movies and miniseries at Lorimar Television.
Despite the recent not-so-smooth sailing of the “CBS Sunday Night Movie,” advertisers, agents and producers say it remains a valuable franchise.
“The reason that people do movies is that they win awards and it’s special,” said Carrie Stein, head of long-form packaging for talent agency ICM. “The buzzword has become events. When an event is done, they bring in an audience.”
Initiative’s Mr. Butchen said CBS’s Sunday movie is a good counterprogramming move on a Sunday night that is now crowded with sitcoms and dramas on the other networks.