By Wayne Karrfalt
Special to TelevisionWeek
This year’s crop of nominees for best made-for-television movie or miniseries distinguished itself in two ways. All the nominees featured top-quality performances and all, with the exception of AMC’s “Broken Trail,” were small character pieces rather than large, splashy events. Movies on television, what few there are left, have taken on a more artsy role, for better or worse. Gone are the event pictures which got millions to tune in on a given night.
This year’s Golden Globe movie nominees seemed to succeed because they were perfect vehicles for their stars. The tragicomic “Mrs. Harris” on HBO works because a dream cast is able to draw the audience into one of the most frivolous murder cases in recent history. The leads Ben Kingsley and Annette Bening were nominated for their roles, and the supporting cast was excellent.
“X-Files” veteran Gillian Anderson joins the usual grouping of top-notch British character actors in PBS’s eight-hour adaptation of Dickens’ “Bleak House.”
Robert Duvall eats up the scenes and scenery in “Broken Trail.” The actor was having so much fun one wondered whether first time-producer AMC had to pay him.
Helen Mirren elevates the productions of both “Elizabeth I” on HBO and “Prime Suspect: The Final Act” on PBS by finding the perfect pitch in each role. It’s hard to believe Ms. Mirren could improve upon the work she has done in the arenas of the costume drama and detective fiction, but improve she has.
As works of television all five entries succeeded in creating moving drama, say critics. But none had much of an impact on the popular landscape.
“How many people saw or even heard of these movies? I never heard anyone talk about them. There was so little buzz generated about any of these, and that doesn’t bode well for the genre,” said Diane Werts, TV critic for Long Island’s Newsday.
One reason movies and minis on television have become niche products is because the broadcast networks, the entities that have the best chance of drawing a huge audience, have all but abandoned the genre.
Cable networks, which tend to serve clearly defined audiences, can spend money on a one-off if it plays to their base and enhances their brand. Broadcast network programming executives have decided to devote their valuable resources to weekly dramas that with repeats can play up to 40 times a year rather than squander them on a movie that has little life after its initial airing.
“The networks are all about regularity. They play at a higher level in terms of production costs and viewers and they need to get a bigger return on their investment,” said Rick Kushman, TV critic for The Sacramento Bee and president of the Television Critics Association.
On one level, broadcasters are playing to their strengths by eliminating movies, said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming for Katz Television Group. “[CBS] had so many good crime series they figured why not put them on TV’s most watched night,” Mr. Carroll said, referring to Sunday nights.
The one nominee that did manage to draw a sizable audience, the revisionist Western “Broken Trail,” probably stands the best chance of winning partly because it was an event picture. The network’s first original production scored a record 7.6 rating for AMC, translating into 9.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
It also featured competent direction by Walter Hill, stunning cinematography by Lloyd Ahern II and a loving tribute to a cinematic genre. “It’s got a cattle drive. It’s got Duvall playing a cowboy. How can you go wrong with that?” asked Mr. Kushman.