No programming form has been more popular in the history of television in the United States than the presentation of motion pictures. During the latter third of the twentieth century most people saw movies most of the time not in theaters but on television--broadcast, cable, and home video. Beginning with The Late Show in the mid-1950s, and Saturday Night at the Movies during the early 1960s, feature film showings settled in as one of television's dominant programming forms.

Movie presentation on broadcast TV actually began in the late 1940s when British companies willingly rented films to new TV stations. Minor Hollywood studios, in particular Monogram and Republic, then jumped in, and delivered some 4,000 titles to television stations before the end of 1950. Typical offerings featured B-Westerns starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. But the repeated showings of this low budget fare only served to remind movie fans of the extraordinary number of treasures resting comfortably in the vaults of the major Hollywood studios: MGM, RKO, Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, and Warner Bros.

These dominant Hollywood studios finally agreed to tender their vast libraries of film titles to television because eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, owner of RKO, had run his studio into the ground. By late in 1953, it was clear Hughes had to do something, and so few industry observers were surprised in 1954 when he agreed to sell RKO's older films to the General Tire & Rubber Company to be presented on its independent New York television station. By 1955 the popularity of Million Dollar Movie made it clear that film fans would abandon theaters to curl up and watch a re-showing of their past cinematic favorites.

Thereafter through the mid-1950s all the major Hollywood companies released their pre-1948 titles to television. For the first time in the 60-year history of film a national audience was able to watch, at their leisure, a broad cross section of the best and worst of Hollywood talkies. Silent films were only occasionally presented, usually in the form of compilations of the comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

By the mid-1960s innumerable "Early Shows," "Late Shows," and "Late, Late Shows" dotted TV schedules. For example, by one count more than 100 classic black and white films aired each week on New York City television stations, smaller numbers in less populous cities. But with color television becoming more and more of a reality, the three TV networks dickered to book newer Technicolor Hollywood feature films. The network with the most invested in color, NBC, thus premiered, at the beginning of the 1961-1962 TV season, the first prime time series of recent films as Saturday Night at the Movies.

Ratings were high and the other two major networks, CBS and ABC, seeing how poorly their shows fared against Saturday Night at the Movies, quickly moved to set up their own "Nights at the Movies." Early in 1962 ABC, then a distant third in the ratings, moved first with a mid-season replacement: Sunday Night at the Movies. CBS, the longtime ratings leader in network television, remained aloof and did not come on board until September 1965.

Soon thereafter television screenings of recent Hollywood movies became standard practice. In 1968 nearly 40% of all television sets in use at the time tuned in to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (theatrical release date 1963). Recent feature films regularly attracted blockbuster ratings; when Gone with the Wind was shown in two parts in early November of 1976 half the nation's television home chose to again see Scarlett and Rhett.

By the early 1970s, overlapping permitted viewers to choose from ten separate movie nights each week. It soon became clear that there were "too many" scheduled movies showings on network television, and "too little" new product coming into the pipeline to fill these slots. Hollywood knew this, and the studios began to charge higher and higher prices for TV screenings. For the widely viewed September 1966 telecast of The Bridge Over the River Kwai, the Ford Motor Company had to put up nearly $2 million to be the sole sponsor.

Network executives found a solution: make movies aimed for a television premiere. The networks began made-for-television movies in October 1964 when NBC aired See How They Run, starring John Forsythe. But the historical turn came in 1966 when NBC contracted with MCA's Universal studios to create a regular series of World Premiere movies-made-for-television. The initial entry of this continuing effort was Fame Is the Name of the Game, inauspiciously presented on a Saturday night in November 1966.

By the early 1970s made-for-television motion pictures had become a mainstay of network programming, outnumbering theatrical fare in "Nights at the Movies." Profits proved substantial. A typical movie made for television cost $750,000, far less than what Hollywood was demanding for rental of its recent blockbusters. And the ratings were phenomenal. Few expected that millions upon millions would tune in for Brian's Song (1971), Women in Chains (1972), The Waltons' Thanksgiving Story (1973), and A Case of Rape (1974). Such fare regularly out drew what were considered the biggest films of the era: West Side Story (1961; 1972 premiere on network television), Goldfinger (1964; 1972 premiere on network television), The Graduate (1967; 1973 premiere on network television).

ABC led the way. During the 1971-1972 television season, the ABC Movie of the Week series that was composed of all movies made for television finished as the fifth highest series of the year. The ABC Movie of the Week had premiered in the fall of 1969, placed on the schedule by young executive Barry Diller, then head of prime time programming at ABC, later a founder of the FOX television network. TV movies also began to earn praise for the upstart ABC; the "alphabet" network earned five Emmys, a prestigious George Foster Peabody award, and citations from the NAACP and the American Cancer Society for an airing of Brian's Song in 1972.

Made-for-television movies made it possible to deal with topical or controversial material not deemed appropriate for regularly scheduled network series. Celebrated actors and actresses who did not wish to work in series television could be featured in miniseries. Running over a different number of nights such miniseries as Lonesome Dove, Holocaust, Shogun, Thorn Birds, and Fresno drew high ratings during key rating measurement periods. In 1983 ABC presented Winds of War on six successive February evenings, for a total of 18 hours at a cost of production of nearly $40 million. This miniseries required more than 200 days to shoot, from a script of nearly 1000 pages. Winds of War, starring Robert Mitchum and Ali McGraw, more than returned its sizable investment in this key sweeps month by capturing half the total viewing audience and selling out all its advertising spots at $300,000 per minute.


Something for Joey

Indeed it was ABC's Roots that in a single week in January 1977 had drawn an estimated 130 million households to tune into at least one episode on the eight consecutive nights. Some 80 million Americans watched the final and eighth episode of this docudrama, breaking the TV ratings record set just a year earlier by Gone with the Wind. And Roots created for network television an event that was the equal of any blockbuster theatrical film.

But as Roots was setting its records, the TV marketplace was changing. In the late 1970s and early 1980s pay-TV, particularly in the form of Time, Inc.'s Home Box office, drew millions to its uncut screenings, free of breaks for advertisements. Later in the 1980s home video spread to the vast majority of homes in the United States, and suddenly film fans could watch their favorites, uncut, not interrupted, and when ever they liked. Theatrical features began to have so much exposure on pay TV and home video that they ceased to be as valuable on network evening showcases and made-for-television films filled more and more of the time for network "Nights at the Movies."

There was change on the local level as well. The number of independent television stations doubled in the 1980s, and all used movies to help fill their schedules. Independents developed movie libraries by contracting with Hollywood studios for 5-year rentals, able to air acquired titles as many times as possible during that period. Researchers told executives of independent stations that movies tended to draw a larger than average share of valued female watchers, in particular those from 18-34 and 18-49 age groups so prized by advertisers.

By the 1990s in an average week a film fan could chose among hundreds of scheduled titles. But not all was bliss. Reliance on television for the presentation of motion pictures extracted a high price in terms of viewing conditions. The television image is constructed on a four by three ratio while the standard image for motion pictures made after 1953 is much wider. To accommodate the larger image on TV, the wide-screen film is cut off at the sides. Panning and scanning companies re-edit the wide-screen film so the action shifts to the center of the frame, but the fan misses any subtlety at the edges.

Of course, films need not be panned and scanned. One could reduce the image for television until all of it fits; in practice, this technique of letterboxing fills the empty space above and below with a black matte. During the 1980s, there was a great deal of lip service paid to letterboxing, but movie watchers en masse in the United States did not seem to care for it. Fans seemed to prefer that the TV frame be filled with the chosen center the action.

But the biggest complaint from the average television viewer of motion pictures has long been the interruption of the movie by advertisements. To fit the formulaic slots of television a station or network shows but 90 minutes of film for a 2-hour slot. Stories of how television companies accomplished cutting are legendary. It is said that Fred Silverman, when he was a lowly film editor at WGN-TV in Chicago, solved the problem of fitting in the 96-minute Jailhouse Rock in a 90 minute slot by cutting all of Elvis' musical numbers! Indeed the key attraction of pay-TV and then home video was the elimination of interruptions for advertising.

In short, as the presentation of films on TV reaches its 50th anniversary we can begin to appreciate how television screenings of films has changed movie going in America. And change continues. Just when experts declared that because of pay-TV and home video that blockbuster movies shown on network television could not draw an audience NBC offered Jurassic Park. The box-office hit, widely available on home video for less than $15, was shown on Sunday night 7 May 1995, at the beginning of a key sweeps month. Advertisers paid $650,000 for each 30-second advertising slot. And more than one in four television households in the United States tuned in.

-Douglas Gomery


Chambers, Everett. Producing TV Movies. New York: Prentice Hall, 1986.

Edgerton, Gary. "High Concept, Small Screen." Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), Fall 1991.

Forkan, James P. "For Independents, Movies Remain Primetime Priority." Television-Radio Age (New York), 26 December 1988.

Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin's TV Movies and Video Guide. New York: New American Library, 1992.

Marill, Alvin H. Movies Made For Television: The Telefeature and the Mini-series, 1964-1979. Westport, Connecticut: Arlington House, 1980.

Rapping, Elayne. The Movie of the Week: Private Stories/Public Events. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1992

Tobenkin, David. "Movies Still Rolling in Syndication: New Packages Belie Rumor of Genre's Failing Health." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 23 January 1995.


See also American Movie Classics; Cable Networks; Channel Four; Film on Four; The Movie Network; Movie Professionals and Television; Programming