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Will TV Movies Sink or Swim in New Reality?

Steve White supervised development of NBC’s TV movies until 1986, leaving the network not long before Fox crashed the prime-time party. The made-for-TV movie was in fat city then, with the Big Three networks commanding more than three-quarters of the prime-time audience.

White is trying to prove you can go home again, having recently assumed a more exalted version of the job he occupied 15 years ago. Unfortunately, just about everything else has changed radically--to the point where most discussions of the TV movie fall under the heading “Can This Genre Be Saved?,” a notable question for a form that once represented the best television had to offer.

The registry of past Emmy winners reminds us that movies and miniseries accounted for some of the most memorable programs in TV history, from “Roots,” “Brian’s Song,” “Eleanor and Franklin” and “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” in the 1970s to “Special Bulletin,” “Something About Amelia,” “Promise” and “Roe vs. Wade” in the ‘80s.

In the ‘00s, however, the network movie has become something of an unwanted stepchild--a marketing problem in an age where the average person has nearly five dozen channels from which to choose. Viewers may know to look for “NYPD Blue” or “ER” at a specific night and time, but quick, what’s on CBS this Sunday at 9 p.m.? How ‘bout ABC next Monday?

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The problem for the major networks is that no one knows exactly how to attack this new reality. Susan Lyne, executive vice president of movies and miniseries at ABC, stated a few months ago that the movies she picks must be easily summed up in a 10-second on-air promo--a strategy that lends itself primarily to churning out biographies of famous people, from Muhammad Ali to the Beach Boys to Audrey Hepburn.

NBC will alter its course under White, who immediately junked most projects left over from his predecessor, Lindy DeKoven, and harbors little appetite for big-budget fantasies such as this week’s “The 10th Kingdom.” Fox, meanwhile, wants to establish a new movie night fitting its “brand,” which, of late, would focus on dark comedies about publicity-hungry psychopaths doing stupid things.

Even CBS, which has mostly followed the high road, is suddenly grasping at more titillating topics, from its current JonBenet Ramsey miniseries, “Perfect Murder, Perfect Town,” to a proposed docudrama about Elian Gonzalez, the little boy turned political football. If this continues, CBS can retitle its Sunday film slot “Children in Peril Theater.”

Cable channels, by contrast, have fewer series to promote and can thus throw their energies into movies--using them as a source of prestige and a means to define themselves.

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HBO’s promotional assaults are legendary, to the point where a frustrated Showtime executive once screamed at a passing bus, “Enough already! I know ‘Gotti’ is on!” The pay service has won seven straight Emmy Awards in the movie category, meaning a broadcast network hasn’t claimed those honors since the start of the Clinton administration.

Other cable channels are pressing aggressively into the movie arena, with narrowly targeted projects tailored to their audience niche, from VH1 to Nickelodeon.

Arts & Entertainment, an Emmy winner last year for the miniseries “Horatio Hornblower,” set viewing records for the network with “The Crossing,” a historical account about George Washington.

These smaller networks possess more latitude selecting projects, but even A&E; sweated out that one. “A lot of people said, ‘A Revolutionary War movie? What are you? Nuts?’ ” recalled Delia Fine, A&E;'s vice president of drama and performing arts programming.

A&E;'s latest original production, “The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery,” extends its mystery franchise and features Timothy Hutton, whose father, Jim, once played a TV sleuth in “Ellery Queen.” There’s even room for a classic here and there, with A&E; planning a new version of “The Great Gatsby” for later this year.

“We hope that these movies and miniseries are kind of a shorthand way of saying what the network stands for,” Fine said. “Without question, you want the ratings, but there is really a halo effect that comes to you that can be beneficial in a lot of ways . . . [bringing] people in the tent who haven’t sampled A&E; before.”

NBC faces the same challenge. The only problem is, the networks need to fill a much larger tent.

White is convinced the major networks can succeed with movies similar to those that have played on cable channels, from HBO’s “The Rat Pack” to TNT’s “Pirates of Silicon Valley.”

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“That line [between network and cable] is beginning to break down,” White said. “I don’t see why some of that stuff couldn’t have been on NBC. . . . We have to look at what they’re doing in terms of interesting product that’s getting attention, awards and press and say, ‘Could that work for us?’ ”

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There’s certainly room for skepticism. To put it in feature-film parlance, if cable channels are art houses, networks remain the equivalent of big-studio productions, and “Saving Private Ryan” or “Jurassic Park” can’t survive on prestige alone if they gross a mere $10 million.

Howard Braunstein, whose company produced “Golden Spiders,” says cable networks are often easier for producers to read because they possess a clear vision of what they want and what fits their profile. CBS has done much the same, at least until recently, in programming Sundays.

“With CBS, you sort of know when you tune into their Sunday movie what you’re going to get,” Braunstein noted.

According to White, NBC is determined to take chances, and not just on movies that can be distilled down to a 10-second promo.

“Clearly, if you look at the ratings, NBC kind of lost its way in the two-hour form,” he said. “There’s been a tendency to do a type of two-hour movie that’s supposed to promote itself, and those have not worked very well.”

What will work remains anybody’s guess, as the networks navigate a dark tunnel and hope there’s not a steep cliff waiting at the end. White insists he’s determined to test whether the sort of quality productions recently left to the art house can leap to the multiplex and still plant the requisite number of butts on couches.

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Sounds nice, but just in case, he might want to develop a few projects about millionaires and those who marry them. Such stories weren’t such a big deal during his first stint at NBC, but these days, people seem to have a real taste for them.

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Brian Lowry’s column appears on Tuesdays. He can be reached by e-mail at brian.lowry@latimes.com.


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