A Quarter-Century of Television Movies . . . : The Historical View : At times, the tube has tackled subjects too hot for the big screen

Ronald Reagan's last film was supposed to be the first TV movie. But "The Killers," which also starred Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson and John Cassavetes, was deemed "too violent" for television and was released in the theaters instead.

That left it to John Forsythe and his mobster chase drama, "See How They Run," to inaugurate the genre on NBC on Oct. 7, 1964. A month later, NBC was back with "The Hanged Man," starring Robert Culp and Vera Miles, and a new industry was born.

Nearly 2,500 films have followed. They've ranged from Vanna White in "The Goddess of Love" to Jason Robards in "The Day After," from Karen Valentine in "The Girl Who Came Gift-Wrapped" to Cicely Tyson in "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," from Robert Conrad and Buddy Ebsen in "Smash-up on Interstate 5" to James Woods and James Garner in "Promise."

You name the subject and there's probably been a TV movie about it: missing children, wife beating, the off-the-field-antics of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, the war in Vietnam, a mock invasion of killer bees, hookers, rape, nuclear holocaust, homosexuality, serial murder, AIDS, incest and homelessness.

Steven Spielberg got some of his first directing jobs in TV movies, including the well-regarded "Duel" in 1971. Patty Duke has appeared in 32 TV films. Aaron Spelling's recent CBS drama, "Day One," was the record 100th TV movie he has produced.

Good or bad--but always with the requisite number of commercial interruptions--the TV movie has become a permanent part of the television landscape. To commemorate its 25th anniversary, the American Film Institute will hold a luncheon Tuesday paying tribute to the form. ABC founder and former chairman Leonard Goldenson, who in 1969 made the "Movie of the Week" a fixture on the network television schedule, will be the guest of honor.

"TV movies have become a tremendously important genre," said Jean Firstenberg, director of the American Film Institute. "As the number of motion pictures for theatrical release was reduced, the opportunity to make motion pictures for the small screen was a terrific boon for film makers. It has become an important outlet for the creative community and a marvelous training ground for young talent."

Goldenson was not the TV movie's true pioneer, however. In 1964, Jennings Lang, then head of television at Universal, convinced NBC executives Mort Werner, then vice president of programming, and Grant Tinker, then head of the network's West Coast programming department, to try an experiment.

"There weren't enough (theatrical) features," Tinker remembered. "We had two movie nights at the time and we were eating up features. The thought was simply that television could produce movies for itself."

Universal produced three that first year, and the two that made it to television attracted enough of an audience to encourage the network to air more. "In those days, feature movies were not stopping on cable first, and so they did well (in the ratings)," said Tinker, who later became chairman of NBC and now heads up his own production company, GTG Entertainment. "And these television movies, which we made and cast with theatrical movies in mind, did comparably well."

These two-hour films, billed by NBC as "World Premieres," aired sporadically over the next five years. ABC broadcast its first made-for-TV movie, "Scalplock," in 1966, and many of the TV films that aired during the form's first several years were actually pilots for proposed television series. (Many still are today.)

The genre didn't really take off until a young ABC executive named Barry Diller, now chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, came up with the idea of airing a new, 90-minute TV movie at the same time every week.

"Universal agreed to make them for $350,000 per movie," Goldenson recalled, "but when it got to (Universal boss) Lew Wasserman, he said, 'We can't make it for that.' He wanted $400,000 per picture. But Diller said he could get other studios to do it."

Diller recalled that "everyone" thought the TV movie would flop and that all of the studios were reluctant to make movies for his network, fearing they would be competing even more directly with their theatrical motion pictures. But Diller succeeded because most of the studios were equally afraid not to get into the game--afraid that if the genre did succeed, they would be shut out in the future. ABC also set up its own in-house production unit and went into partnership with various producers such as Spelling.

The network premiered its "Tuesday Night Movie of the Week" in the fall of 1969 with "Seven in Darkness," a plane-crash drama starring Milton Berle, and after the network's first few films drew big audiences, the studios were lining up for a chance to produce them.

"Eventually the network went to three nights of movies and it was the beginning of the turnaround for ABC," said Louis Rudolph, a veteran TV movie producer who was head of television movies at ABC from 1975 to 1980. "That was when they were able to shed the label of the junior network. And the movies were their signature.

"Goldenson's feeling was that movies for television would ultimately garner a greater audience than theatrical films. The theatrical films were more and more being made for a younger audience, and the broad, mass audience was looking to television. And it turned out he was right."

"I think that the regular supply of TV movies gave the television industry an opportunity to utilize the movie studios to full capacity, and in a sense made television a more viable medium," Goldenson said. "And the studios figured out they could make some money from television. They make some money domestically and then they make a lot more when they sell them in foreign markets."

Perhaps TV movies' most notable distinction is as a place to tell serious stories about controversial social issues.

Initially, Tinker said, the networks were looking for films similar to those that could be seen in theaters. But after a while--begining with such movies as "My Sweet Charlie" in 1970, a movie about interracial love between a man and woman, "Truman Capote's The Glass House," a grim portrait of prison conditions in 1972, and "That Certain Summer," another 1972 movie that told the story of a gay father and his son--TV movies became the place to treat subject matter "that feature movies couldn't afford to treat," Tinker said.

"The studios are too afraid that people won't come and pay $5 or $6 (at a movie theater) to see a controversial subject," he added. "The best work in TV movies never would have gotten made as features."

"TV movies have really become the form for making strong comments about our society or events," said Rudolph, who produced the 1974 TV movie "A Case of Rape." "Theatrical films are pretty much all escapist entertainment. Issues of abortion or inequities in the rape law, euthanasia, AIDS--they are on television.

"And people really do look to TV as a window on reality. That's where they saw the Kennedy assassination, the first man on the moon. More and more they came to look to television to show them what's out there. And when you think about it, a huge TV movie (such as 'The Day After,' which depicted a full-scale nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union and attracted 62% of the available audience) is one of the few experiences left when the entire tribe comes to the campfire and shares a common experience. A theatrical movie can never do that."

TV movie advocates claim that the best of the TV movies--including miniseries, which were invented by ABC in 1974--are as good as any theatrical movie. "I would be willing to say that 'Roots' is as good as 'Gone With the Wind,' " Rudolph said. "And there are a number of TV films that can stand up with the best theatrical movies."

But everyone concedes that in the quest for ratings and highly promotable concepts, TV movies are often governed by the network's most crass and commercial instincts. "Some of the work on television is awfully good," Tinker said. "But there are an awful lot of exploitation films as well. It's nothing you can go to jail for, but nothing that you'd want carved on your tombstone either."

Rudolph blames the networks for what he sees as an overall decline in the quality of television movies over the past several years. While the networks still air the occasional "War and Remembrance" or "Lonesome Dove," those epics are overshadowed by the plethora of formulaic and trashy TV movies such as "The Sex Tape Scandals," "A Very Brady Christmas" and "Get Smart Again."

"As the movies have gotten more expensive to make, there is more pressure on the networks to play it safe and go for ratings," said Rudolph, who is currently working on a sequel to his 1987 movie "LBJ: The Early Years." "They have begun to scrape the bottom of the barrel with hackneyed and worn concepts--this week's hot topic.

"You just don't feel that there is any room for passion in their decision making. When I was at ABC, there was always room for passion, for things that you just had to make even though no one expected it do well. That's how 'Roots' was done. We just had to do it. Today it's all formularized. This many sex exploitation films, X number of 'stunt' pictures like the Vanna White movie, so many from the day's sensational headlines. It doesn't leave room for much else."

Full sponsorship of TV film production by corporations such as Chrysler, which backed the recent "Day One," or Hallmark, which picked up the tab for next Sunday's "My Name is Bill W.," starring James Woods and James Garner, is one hope for getting high-quality movies made for network television. And cable, Rudolph said, may turn out to be the TV-movie fan's best friend.

"The future in terms of quality for TV movies on the networks is very dark," Rudolph said. "But on cable, which generally has a more upscale and erudite audience and has to provide an alternative to the networks to justify subscription costs, I think there's a lot of reasons to be hopeful."

HBO has been commissioning TV films since 1983. Tonight, for example, the pay-cable network is unveiling "Murderers Among Us," a film chronicling the life of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Ted Turner's new TNT cable network, which premiered last October, is also seriously ensconced in the business of making its own TV movies; on Monday, it will serve up Farrah Fawcett as pioneering photojournalist "Margaret Bourke-White."

And this Wednesday, cable's USA Network debuts a new weekly movie series with the first of 24 new TV films, "The Forgotten," a drama about former American prisoners of war starring James Keach, Steve Railsback and Keith Carradine.

At 25, some might say that the TV movie is already well past its prime. But it is definitely still huffing and puffing and is not about to go away anytime soon.

"Over the years, they have become a legitimate part of the TV landscape," Tinker said. "In a way they have come to replace certain parts of television that have died off--the western, the variety show, the prime-time game show. The ironic thing is that occasionally, through a TV movie or miniseries such as 'Lonesome Dove,' we get to revisit and reminisce about some of those old components of television that they wouldn't do as a series today."

THE 10 HIGHEST RATED TV MOVIES

Date Title Network Aired Rating Share 1."The Day After" ABC 11/20/83 46.0 62 2."Little Ladies of the Night" ABC 1/16/77 36.9 53 3."The Burning Bed" NBC 10/8/84 36.2 52 4."Night Stalker" ABC 1/11/72 33.2 48 5. "A Case of Rape" NBC 2/20/74 33.1 49 6."Return to Mayberry" NBC 4/13/86 33.0 49 "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders" ABC 1/14/79 33.0 48 8."Brian's Song" ABC 11/30/71 32.9 48 9."Women in Chains" ABC 1/24/72 32.3 48 10. "Something About Amelia" ABC 1/9/84 31.9 46

SOURCE: A.C. Nielsen Co.

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