More than the other broadcast networks, CBS still likes a good made-for-TV movie. In fact, it's the only network where movies remain a regular part of the schedule. "Movies give us a really nice platform to do the bigger miniseries, books and a lot of other things," says Bela Bajaria, senior vice president of movies and miniseries for CBS.
CBS's broadcast of John Grisham's A Painted House
was last season's No. 1 movie in viewers, seen by 18.6 million people. Other CBS offerings, such as Hell on Heels: TheBattle for Mary Kay, didn't meet expectations, "but, overall, it's still a good business for us or we wouldn't be doing it," says one CBS executive.
This season, CBS is leading into its Sunday Night Movie with the new Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Cold Case, a procedural crime show with a female lead that the network expects will make a more compatible lead to other movies—theatrical and made-for-television—than the two comedies that filled the Sunday 8-9 p.m. slot last year.
Last week, CBS announced four new movies that it plans to air in September and October, with such stars as Tom Selleck, Mary Tyler Moore, Candice Bergen and Robin Givens. The four—Twelve Mile Road, Blessings, Footsteps
and Jackie Collins' Hollywood Wives: The New Generation—are just part of the 20 or so original movies CBS has planned for the 2003-04 season.
Last year, CBS had six of the top 10 movies in viewers, four of the top 10 in adults 18-49 and five in adults 25-54. Besides Painted House, The Christmas Shoes
with Rob Lowe brought in 16.7 million viewers, and part one of the controversial Hitler
miniseries scored 13.6 million.
NBC had the other made-for-TV movies in the top five. James Patterson's First To Die
was third, with 15.5 million viewers, and Martha, Inc., a biopic about embattled domestic diva Martha Stewart, was fourth, with 14 million viewers.
All three of CBS's most-viewed movies didn't do as well in the demographics as they did in viewers. Still, CBS was happy with their demo performance, says one CBS executive.
NBC's Martha, Inc.
topped both the 18-49 and 25-54 lists, making it arguably last year's most successful made-for TV movie, followed by ABC's The Pennsylvania Miners' Story, which was second in both 18-49 and 25-54.
The subject matter of NBC's and ABC's most successful movies last season illustrates both networks' made-for-TV-movie strategy: Keep them current and pop-culture–oriented and air fewer of them so that each can be a highly promotable event.
"We make what we'd call movies of the sweeps, instead of movies of the week. We wanted each movie to stand on its own," says Jeff Gaspin, executive vice president of alternative series, longform and program strategy for NBC Entertainment. "We didn't want it to be a commodity like movies of the week tend to be. It's also very important that we picked movies that were presold to the audience."
In that vein, this November, NBC will air Saving Jessica Lynch, focusing on the rescue of Pvt. Lynch in Iraq last spring. It's also doing two Christmas movies, a behind-the-scenes look at '70s TV hit Charlie's Angels
and 10.5, about a killer earthquake that hits California.
The other broadcast networks—Fox, The WB and UPN—shy away from the genre. The networks target young adults, who like movies but not the made-for-TV variety.
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Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.