The following article was originally published in The Caucus for Producers and Writers Journal in the 1980’s.
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 event!
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 ‘Hard Copy.'”
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 movies.
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.”