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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Everett. Producing TV Movies. New York: Prentice Hall, 1986.
Gary. "High Concept, Small Screen." Journal of Popular Film and
Television (Washington, D.C.), Fall 1991.
James P. "For Independents, Movies Remain Primetime Priority." Television-Radio
Age (New York), 26 December 1988.
Leonard. Leonard Maltin's TV Movies and Video Guide. New
York: New American Library, 1992.
Alvin H. Movies Made For Television: The Telefeature and the
Mini-series, 1964-1979. Westport, Connecticut: Arlington House,
Elayne. The Movie of the Week: Private Stories/Public Events.
Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1992
David. "Movies Still Rolling in Syndication: New Packages Belie
Rumor of Genre's Failing Health." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington,
D.C.), 23 January 1995.
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