Monday, September 23, 2019

This Day in Television History (‘ABC Movie of the Week’ Kicks TV Films Into High Gear)

Sept. 23, 1969—Mired in last among the then-three TV networks, ABC, figuring it had little if anything to lose, experimented by going all-in on a new TV format. The ABC Movie of the Week premiered with a 90-minute episode, the first of nearly 270 that would air for the next six years, proving the popularity—and sometimes, the value—of the made-for-television movie.

The plane-crash drama “Seven in Darkness,” which kicked off the series, was not, technically, the “first TV movie.” That honor belonged to “See How They Run,” a John Forsythe that aired in 1964. Through the next five years, however, attempts to expand on that footprint were fitful.

But the young ABC exec Barry Diller pushed hard for running a 90-minute TV movie in the same time slot every week. Each new film would be billed as an event, a “world premiere,” and Diller was careful to promote the series as "the most costly series in network history."

Even so, the decision was not as big a gamble as he suggested. At worst, ABC might win points with critics for its sense of innovation; at best, it could it could go nowhere but up in the ratings. There was not enough product to feed the demand for films on the networks. 

Moreover, in a 1989 Los Angeles Times article on the made-for-TV phenomenon, Grant Tinker—head of NBC’s West Coast programming department in the Sixties, then later the network’s chairman—recalled, “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.”

Finally, Diller figured out how to produce TV movies more cheaply than some in the industry anticipated. When Universal boss Lew Wasserman said he couldn’t make them for less than $400,000 a picture, Diller got ABC to establish its own production unit and team up with various producers such as Aaron Spelling and David L. Wolper, keeping them on a tight budget throughout.

During its first season, I was, at age 10, still a bit too young to stay up till its closing credits at 10 am. Moreover, several films that season—“Daughter of the Mind,” “Along Came a Spider,” “How Awful About Allan”—looked creepy enough to give me nightmares had I been bold enough to watch.

But even then, I was curious and lured to the show by its beguiling theme, “Nikki,” composed three years earlier by Burt Bacharach for his daughter and arranged by Harry Betts as musical background to the computer-style opening graphics.

From the first, The ABC Movie of the Week succeeded through five means:

*Offering new, often offbeat, roles to stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Era.” “Seven in Darkness” offered a good example, with this innovative form of TV starring “Mr. Television” himself, Milton Berle. The former comedy star won plaudits for a change-of-pace dramatic role as one of seven blind survivors of a plane crash. Similar roles outside their wheelbarrow were accepted by Edward G. Robinson in “The Old Man Who Cried Wolf” and Bing Crosby in “Dr. Cook’s Garden,” while Ray Milland, Walter Brennan, Myrna Loy and Gene Tierney also appeared in the series.

*Creating opportunities for rising talents. Before making an impact on the silver screen in, respectively, The Godfather and Lady Sings the Blues, James Caan and Billy Dee Williams scored as NFL teammates and friends in the tearjerker “Brian’s Song.” And, four years before Jaws, Steven Spielberg demonstrated that he knew how to amp up suspense with “Duel,’ starring Dennis Weaver as a businessman on a road who realizes that a diesel-truck driver is out for his blood.

*Using TV movies to test-run series. Several series got their start as highly rated episodes of the ABC Movie of the Week: “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “The Night Stalker,” “Kung Fu,” “Wonder Woman” and “Starsky and Hutch.” 

*Offering a variety of genres. From one week to the next, viewers might find a different genre: horror (“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”), film noir “Goodbye, My Love”), rom-com (“The Feminist and the Fuzz”), or family drama (“Go Ask Alice”).

*Highlighting subject matter still too sensitive to make it to the big screen. Even as the rising youth culture and the decline of the film industry’s longtime censorship codes led to groundbreaking new works on the silver screen, some topics were still too sensitive or even controversial to be dealt with. With so much money on the line, many executives preferred to play it safe. TV had no such constraints because the expenses of a TV movie were lower to begin with. ABC capitalized on this freedom with such fare as “The Ballad of Andy Crocker,” starring Lee Majors as a Vietnam vet experiencing trouble readjusting to civilian life, and “That Certain Summer,” with Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen in a pioneering study of homosexuality.

For several seasons, the ABC Movie of the Week scored well in the ratings and often with critics (notably with “Brian’s Song” and “That Certain Summer”). The bottom finally dropped out in 1975, after the network had set aside yet a second night for TV movies and quality consequently suffered. But by this time, the genre had been well established, with the other networks—as well as the fledgling HBO—also taking to the format. 

I am sure there are many others besides me who remember this series and wish, like me, that the networks could offer something like this again, rather than so many hours of reality TV.

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