AN EARLY FROST

U.S. Television Movie

An Early Frost, broadcast on 11 November 1985 on the NBC network, was the first American made-for-television movie and the second prime-time dramatic program to acknowledge the presence and spread of AIDS in the 1980s. Because the movie was about the potentially controversial topic of homosexuality and the impact of AIDS on the beleaguered community of gay men, much care went into the preproduction process. First, for more than a year, there was much interaction between writers Dan Lipman and Ron Cowen and NBC's Broadcast Standards and Practices department about the script. Such thorough development is highly unusual for most made-for-television movies. This interaction attempted to insure a delicate balance in the presentation of sensitive subject matter. In addition, NBC gathered a cast of actors--Adian Quin, Genna Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, and Sylvia Sidney--who were most often associated with theatrically released films. The network also secured the service of Emmy-award winning director Jon Erman for the project. These choices, they hoped, would enhance the production's aura of quality and deflect any criticism about exploitation of the tragic pandemic.

Scriptwrtiers Lipman and Cowen consciously framed the narrative about AIDS in the generic conventions of the family melodrama. Strategically, this approach provided a familiar, less threatening environment in which to present information and issues surrounding gay men and the disease. At one level, the narrative of An Early Frost exposes the tenuous links which hold the middle class Pierson family together. On the surface, life appears to be idyllic. Nick Pierson is the successful owner of a lumber yard. He and his wife Kate have reared two seemingly well-adjusted children in a suburban neighborhood. Son Michael is a rising young lawyer in Chicago. Daughter Susan has replicated her parents' lifestyle, married with one child and expecting a second.

Under the surface however, several familial fissures exist. Nick's upwardly mobile class aspirations are stalled. Kate's creative talent as a concert pianist has been sublimated into the demands of being a wife and mother. Susan acquiesces to her own husband's demands, rather than follow her own desires. Unknown to the family, Michael, a closeted gay man, lives with his lover Peter. The fragile veneer of familial stability bursts apart when Michael learns he has AIDS, exposing all the resentments which various family members have repressed.

The script also includes a parallel narrative thread exploring the conflicts in the gay relationship between Michael and Peter. Their relationship suffers from Michael's workaholic attitude towards his job. Conflict also grows out of Peter's openness about his gayness and Michael's inability to be open about his sexuality. The tension between the two is further exacerbated when Michael discovers that Peter has been unfaithful because of these conflicts.

When broadcast, An Early Frost drew a thirty-three share of the viewing audience, winning its time slot for the evening's ratings, and thus suggested that the American public was ready to engage in a cultural discussion of the disease. Even so, the ratings success did not translate into economic profits for NBC. According to Perry Lafferty, the NBC vice-president who commissioned the project, the network lost $500,000 in advertising revenues because clients were afraid to have their commercials shown during the broadcast. Apparently, advertisers believed the subject matter was too controversial because of its homosexual theme and too depressing because of the terminal nature of AIDS as a disease.

These concerns inhibited further production of other made-for-television scripts about AIDS until 1988. Ironically, the production quality of An Early Frost became a hallmark by which members of the broadcasting industry measured any subsequent development of movie scripts about AIDS. Arthur Allan Seidelman, director of an NBC afternoon school-break special about AIDS titled An Enemy Among Us, has stated, "....there was some concern after An Early Frost was done that 'How many more things can you do about AIDS?'" Any new scripts had to live up to and move beyond the standard set by Cowen and Lipman's original made-for-television movie. Although providing the initial mainstream cultural space to examine AIDS, An Early Frost paradoxically hindered increased discussion of the disease in prime-time American broadcast programming precisely because it achieved its narrative and informational goals so well.

-Rodney Buxton


An Early Forst

CAST

Nick Pierson......................................... Ben Gazzara Michael Pierson....................................... Aidan Quinn Katherine Pierson ...............................Gena Rowlands Beatrice McKenna................................. Sylvia Sidney Susan Maracek................................... Sydney Walsh Bob Maracek............................................ Bill Paxton Victor DiMato........................................... John Glover Peter Hilton............................................ D.W. Moffett Dr. Redding........................................... Terry O'Quinn Christine........................................... Cheryl Anderson

PRODUCER Perry Lafferty

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

NBC
11 November 1985

FURTHER READING

Buxton, Rodney. Broadcast Formats, Fictional Narratives and Controversy: Network Television's Depiction of AIDS, 1983 - 1991. Ph.D. Dissertation. The University of Texas at Austin, 1992.

Farber, S. "A Decade Into the AIDS Epidemic the TV Networks Are Still Nervous." New York Times, 2 May 1991.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, Revised. New York:Harper & Row, 1987.

Watney, Simon. Policing Desire: Pornography, AIDS and the Media. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minneapolis Press, 1987.

 

See also Sexual Orientation and Television