- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

A few years ago the modern sitcom was given its last rites, only to return in the guise of quirky shows like “My Name is Earl” and “The Office.”

Much the same can be said about the “Movie of the Week,” once a programming staple of the Big Three broadcast networks — in the long-gone days when they were still the Only Three. While it may not be packaged or presented the way it once was, the form hasn’t died — you just have to pick up your cable remote to find it.

The Hallmark Channel, TNT, USA, Lifetime and the Sci Fi Channel, among others, are all aggressively creating their own telefilms, while the Big Three networks slowly fade from the picture.

Sure, we’ll still get the occasional event picture such as ABC’s forthcoming “The Ten Commandments” remake, but those exceptions only confirm how dramatically the TV landscape has changed in recent times.

Movies of the week were once ubiquitous on NBC, ABC and CBS (none of which answered requests for comments on this story). Today, their telefilms fill gaps in their schedules or provide temporary respites from the avalanche of sitcoms and reality specials.

Bill Carroll, vice president, director of programming with the Katz Television Group in New York City, says the big networks prefer producing series and reality specials that encourage habitual viewing. Television movies, by contrast, invite channel surfing rather than reinforce loyalty, says Mr. Carroll, an industry analyst.

Plus, networks often have a financial interest in the episodic programming they air, creating potential revenue streams that go beyond advertising sales.

“They reap more tangible benefits from the back-end of successful series that ran from four to five years than a group of movies,” he says.

“Cable networks have a different kind of mandate — to distinguish themselves,” Mr. Carroll says. These channels want to extend their brands and, in the case of HBO and Showtime, maintain subscription bases.

Television movies are, he argues, a cost effective way of doing that.

The Hallmark Channel produced more than 20 movies last year, and will produce roughly the same amount in 2006.

David Kenin, executive vice president of programming at Hallmark, says the bulk of the channel’s films are shot in California in under 24 days.

The repetitive nature of the cable business — how pay channels repeat material over time — helps the TV movie model make sense.

“If you make a movie that doesn’t work with audiences, you can still run it a number of times and get some value out of it,” he says.

The same movie can also be transferred to DVD for additional revenue.

Hallmark’s 2003 film “Love Comes Softly,” based on the popular Janette Oke novel, sold heavily in Christian bookstores, he says. “I don’t think there is a strong [DVD] market for every movie, but the potential is there,” he says.

Michael Wright has seen the marketplace from both the network and cable vantage points. Now senior vice president for original programming for TNT and TBS, he once worked in a similar capacity at CBS and recalls business blooming during the early 1980s.

But the creative well eventually dried up.

“When you’re making 200 [films] a year you run out of good stories quickly,” Mr. Wright says, adding the term “TV movie” became synonymous with pejoratives like mawkish and maudlin.

On the financial front, the news was worse.

Ratings fell, stars demanded higher salaries for their services, and overseas markets reached the saturation point.

Audiences moved on.

Then, he says, “HBO happened.”

The pay channel introduced serious, high-quality telefilms which restored the genre’s good name. “HBO showed what the form could be,” he says.

Cable channels could devote more resources to original movies because they had less hours to fill. While CBS must crank out hours of original content, channels like TNT can lean on “Law & Order” reruns and feature films to flesh out the bulk of their schedules.

For TNT, that meant resources could be pooled for large-scale projects like “Into the West,” the channel’s smash 2005 miniseries.

“We offered [“West” producer] Steven Spielberg a storytelling canvas you can’t get anywhere else,” he says. “We have a scheduling flexibility that doesn’t exist on broadcast networks.”

Mr. Carroll senses it’s “foolhardy” to expect the major networks to reverse course on telefilms any time soon, even though the market would seemingly point in that direction.

“If, all of a sudden, the network that makes the biggest comeback turns out to be the network that launches a fill-in-the-blank night movie, that will be [seen as] the difference,” he says.

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