by Bruce Sallan
Murders Of The Week
A landmark day took place the fall of 1992
in the network television movie business. ABC, CBS, and NBC each began
production, on the same day, with the same scheduled finish day, of a movie
about the Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuoco story. NBC had her rights, CBS had his, and
ABC had "public domain." Each competed to be the first to reach the
public and to be the most "authentic" version of the story. NBC
"won" by getting their version on the air first, December 28, 1992 and
scored seemingly unbeatable numbers (19.1 rating/30 share) , garnering their
highest ratings of the season for a television movie. CBS and ABC followed six
nights later, January 3, 1993, running head to head. ABC touted theirs as the
most critically appreciated movie and the one (they had "public
domain") that told the "whole story." CBS was relying on its
wonderful Sunday Night lead-in of 60 Minutes and "Murder She Wrote."
ABC ended up the complete winner with a 19.5 rating/30 share versus CBS' 14.3
rating/22 share, to come up number one in the Amy Fisher race. Which was the
better movie? Which told. the "true story? Does it matter?
Early in this 1992/1993 season, ABC and
CBS each aired a movie about Carolyn Warmus, the woman who killed her
boyfriend's wife. ABC was first and did very well in the ratings. CBS followed a
month later and also did very well in the ratings. Amy Fisher was next.
But, where is this all going? And, when
and, more importantly, why did a great majority of the subject matter of
television movies evolve to what many interviewed for this article have
described as "ambulance chasers"; movies about true-crime subjects
with seemingly an emphasis on any and every permutation of one family member, or
a lover, killing each other?
It wasn't always this way!
An interview with Jerry Isenberg became
a very interesting history lesson on television movies. Mr. Isenberg, currently
Co-Chairman and C.E.O. of Hearst Entertainment was ABC's first head of
television movies, under Barry Diller, back in 1968. The official "Movie of
the Week" began on ABC as a series of 90-minute movies in 1969. They were
"entertainment" pieces, some pilots, and a couple of
"special" movies ¬ bios, the animated movie "The Point,"
etc. Soon, the "genre" movie began. These were ghost movies, vampire
movies, women in jeopardy, and ultimately what became known as the "disease
of the week" movie. "Brian's Song" was probably the precedential
movie of this form in 1970.
In the 70's and early 80's, the
television movie evolved to what many, including Mr. Isenberg, consider the
height of the form, where the subjects were often social issues that feature
films were rarely touching. Gambling ("Winner Take All"-1975),
homosexuality ("That Certain Summer"-1972), and rape ("A Case Of
Rape"-1974) were a few of the subjects explored. Later, drunk driving
("M.A.D.D.: Mothers Against Drunk Drivers"-1983), lost and abducted
children ("Adam"-1983) and incest ("Something About
Amelia"-1984) were explored. The television movie was literally changing
the consciousness of the American public about these fundamental issues. Drunk
driving laws were clearly severely stiffened as a result, missing children on
milk cartons became a sad but necessary by-product of "Adam", and rape
was definitely exposed for the heinous crime it is. Laws and protocols were
being changed significantly.
Mostly, these subjects were approached
as a "social issues" and fictional stories were created. Experts in
the area were utilized in the creation of the stories and the networks Broadcast
Standards and Practices departments were scrupulous in demanding accuracy and
the proper research of the facts. An extension of this "social issue"
movie and probably one of the best television movies ever made was "The
Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"(1974). It was fiction, yet it clearly
explored very socially relevant issues.
Real life true stories were also done,
but more often they were biographies about "heroes" -- major American
figures like presidents such as FDR or Kennedy, or controversial stars like
James Dean, or heroic athletes like Roy Campanella.
There were clearly an equal number of
what were often called "programmers," which were "high
concept" women in jeopardy, genre,, or log-line ideas. As often as not,
they were the lesser quality of the form. But, they were original stories.
In the 70's, the form was almost
exclusively done in a 2¬hour format. Also, the mini-series evolved and became
the blockbuster sensation of the form. These projects were usually based on
"big" books or very "big" subjects. They were fictional as
often as true. "QB VII"(1974) was one of the first.
"Roots"(1977) was the epitome, garnering gigantic audiences, and
utilizing the unprecedented scheduling plan of airing all the parts on
consecutive nights. The "television movie" had now become a national
Artists heretofore alien to television
flocked to the form as the ability both to explore interesting subject matter
and/or to explore it in full length afforded opportunities not available
elsewhere. "Sybil"(1976) gave Sally Field a role which revitalized her
career completely. Nick Nolte's career was largely launched by his appearance in
"Rich Man, Poor Man"(1976).
So, when did it change? In interviewing
the current network Vice Presidents of Television Movies, "Burning
Bed"(1984) and "Fatal Vision"(1984) were often cited as turning
event movies. Both were true-crime stories based on books and both garnered
especially high ratings. Robert Lee, an agent at William Morris, cites
"Burning Bed" as offering such a spectacular leading role and changing
Farrah Fawcett's image so substantially that it became the benchmark for other
actors who wanted their "Burning Bed."
Over the past few years the true-crime
form and the pursuit of those rights and stories has escalated steadily. The
networks are desperately trying to hold onto to their ever eroding audience.
Judd Parkin, Senior VP Television Movies and Mini-Series at ABC, explained how
"in today's market where we're competing with so many options for the
audience, the true-crime movie has the built-in recognizability that is almost
impossible to get any other way." Recently, when his department was about
to air "Willing To Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story," he told of a
discussion with a non show-biz, non-L.A. friend in which he asked what she was
going to watch that Sunday Night. The friend asked what was airing and Judd told
her "Sinatra" on CBS, "The Hard Way" (a theatrical) on NBC,
and "The Texas Cheerleader Story" on ABC. Her immediate response was
"Oh, I remember that cheerleader story . . . I saw that in PEOPLE and on
Alan Wurtzel, head of research at ABC,
explained this phenomenon further when he declared that, after considerable
research by their department into the decision making of the audience over which
television movie to watch on Sunday night, they discovered the decision was
largely made at 8:59 p.m. So, this built-in recognizability factor plays a major
role in the choice of which movie to watch! Whereas in the past, in-house
network promotion and print coverage were considered the major method of
soliciting an audience, it is now basically determined by what Judd Parkin's
friend said: "Oh, I saw that in PEOPLE." The tabloid media, both print
and television, are providing the promotional platform for many television
To check whether the true-crime
television movie was actually performing better than any other form, ratings
were compared for all first-run television movies which aired from September 16,
1991 through September 20, 1992 on the three networks. Two categories:
true-crime and all others. While this author was desperately hoping for contrary
evidence, the results do point to the true-crime form outperforming all others.
On ABC, true-crime movies averaged a 13.8 rating/21.5 share against a 12.0/19.0
for all others. On CBS it was 15.6/24.5 for true crime versus 13.9/22.6 for all
others, while on NBC it was 13.8/21.2 for true crime movies against 13.2/20.4
for all others.
So, the feeding frenzy continues. Glenda
Grant, President of Movies and Mini-Series for Hearst Entertainment, one of the
largest suppliers of network movies, said that more than 40% of her current
network television movie development is "true-crime." She also
hastened to add that at least another 30% was "true story" or
fictional crime/suspense thriller. The more generic "true story" angle
was reiterated by John Matoian, CBS' Senior Vice President of Movies and
Mini-Series, who is a strong advocate of the promotional asset a true story
provides. He said his true crime development percentage was only about 20%,
though a large number of the remaining development was based on true stories.
What became abundantly evident in
interviews for this article was the fact that no one, whether on the network
side, or among producers, writers, and directors, was happy with the escalation
of this true-crime genre of television movie. It's become a necessary part of
the job to scour the papers and magazines everyday, according to one development
executive. Ms. Grant said "I never thought I'd spend my adult life tracking
down murder stories!" Each network now has regular Monday morning meetings
to review "events of the past weekend." Or, they'll act on a moment's
notice when something happens mid-week.
The escalation of rights costs has also
gone through the roof, according to many of those interviewed. Reputedly, the
rights to Amy Fisher exceeded $250,000 for the 2-hour movie. The increased costs
have everyone upset. Mr. Matoian, when asked what could be done to curb these
costs, said, "I don't know how to solve the bidding war problem." This
feeling was echoed by his competitors.
The result of all this hysteria is
rushed movies, inadequate research, lack of perspective on the subject, and
money sometimes going to questionable people and not going on the screen. The
morality of this "ambulance chasing" is clearly vague. Yet, the
network television business is just that, a business. If the audiences are
responding to these movies, it behooves the television movie departments to make
them. But, at what cost? The early examples of these kind of movies, like
"Burning Bed", "Helter Skelter" (1976) , or "Fatal
Vision" all had books on which they were based. Careful research and the
perspective of time allowed for these movies to be both commercially viable and
creatively excellent. Can the same be said of the Amy Fisher movies?
The television movie form, from its
inception, sought to illuminate and educate, as well as entertain. The best of
these, as previous examples illustrated, have truly had the effect of changing
laws and the public's consciousness. These movies were also commercially
successful. It seems incumbent on the current generation of network executives
and producers to strive to expand the form with the kind of quality
story-telling that is its legacy, to challenge conventional thought, broaden
horizons, tell the stories of truly heroic people both contemporary and
historically, take a chance with strong fiction, develop new talent, rather than
rubber necking to be the first on the air with the next lurid true crime story!
Mr. Matoian sums it up quite well when talking about the growing number of
true-crime movies on the networks: "There'll come a point where we'll
implode and kill TV movies."
Caucus member Bruce Sallan is president of television for The Lee Rich Co.
He was previously V.P. of movies for ABC. Among the films he's produced are
"God Bless The Child" and "A Killing In A Small Town."