Cover Story: Cable TV Goes To The Movies

2/22/2009 10:00 AM Eastern

Paramedics bust through the door of an emergency hospital room carrying a critical patient with a mortal head wound. With no seasoned brain surgeons available, a resident doctor (played by Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr.), with little on-the-job experience, must decide whether to put both the patient’s health and the hospital’s liability at risk by operating on the dying man.

The scene — and the compelling back story of a young man’s transformation — could easily have been screened at a movie theater near you. But instead, it’s playing out in TNT’s February made-for-cable movie Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, one of more than 100 original flicks basic cable networks will air in 2009.

Feb. 23, 2009 Cover imageOriginal movies, the purview of broadcast networks in the 1970s and ’80s, are now staples on the schedules of cable networks like Lifetime, Sci Fi Channel and Hallmark Channel.

Such films provide an opportunity for basic-cable networks to serve their core audiences with gripping stories and thrilling action featuring marquee actors and producers, network officials said. And there’s more upside, as programmers don’t need to commit to an often expensive, multiyear, multiepisode scripted series.

At a time when many cash-strapped Americans are staying home on movie night, the interest in made-for-cable movies is expected to swell.

“All of these networks are targeting movies to their audience,” said David Kenin, executive vice president of programming for Hallmark. “In effect, it’s a two-hour expression of the brand that seems genuine for the consumer, and that’s why they seem so strong.”

Original movies have also provided a major ratings boost for several networks so far this year:

  • Last Monday’s (Feb. 26) dueling kids titles from Disney Channel (Dadnapped) and Nickelodeon (Spectacular) drew nearly 8 million viewers combined, according to executives from both networks.

  • ABC Family drew more than 5 million viewers in January for its original movie Another Cinderella Story, the second highest-rated program in network history.

  • Hallmark Channel’s Jan. 3 drama The Nanny Express drew 3.6 million viewers, the fifth-highest movie performance in the network’s history.

  • Cable’s most-watched show ever is an original movie: Disney Channel’s High School Musical 2 drew 18.6 million viewers in August 2007 on a live + seven-day basis.

“What’s happened is that the made-for-TV movie has emerged as a viable programming form within the business model of a cable channel, which can excessively promote its premiere and endlessly run repeats of the film to build audience,” said Robert Thompson, founding director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for TV and Popular Culture. “It’s not so much of a broadcast model, which is why the made-for-TV movie disappeared some time ago for broadcast networks.”

Three decades ago, it was the Big Three broadcast networks that dominated the genre. With such memorable movies as ABC’s Brian’s Song, original movies were as much a staple of the weekly broadcast network lineup as sitcoms like Happy Days and cop dramas like Kojak.

But broadcast networks began to move away from movies in the late 1980s, seeking to draw more consistent and loyal audiences through seven-day slates of scripted drams, sitcoms and reality fare. And now it’s cable that offers the lion’s share of original telefilms.

Networks like women’s targeted Lifetime, Hallmark Channel and Sci Fi Channel each plan to offer more than 30 movies each in 2009, while ABC Family will ring up more than 10 original flicks this year.

That wasn’t true at the turn of the decade, when few cable networks aside from Lifetime, Hallmark and TNT produced original films.

Hallmark began to create original movies across a spectrum of genres such as Westerns, romantic comedies and action fare around 2001, hoping to supplement its lineup of acquired films and series, as well as to fill a void on television.

“Movies represented an opportunity for us to do original programming where you didn’t have to be committed to 13 episodes for a series,” said Kenin. “You could customize [movies] or a specific time period, and you could use movies to counter program big events on the other networks.”

For Lifetime, movies represent an opportunity to capture its female base. Given that women represent the majority of TV-movie viewers, Lifetime’s films — which often feature women in perilous personal predicaments — helped the network ranks among the top cable networks with regards to viewer retention rates. Lifetime viewers average nearly 22 minutes per visit, according to the network.

“The women who come to the network don’t surf channels — they come and watch the whole movie,” said Lifetime senior vice president of original movies Tanya Lopez. “They want a beginning, middle and an end, and they’re willing to stay on the network to watch it.”

For cable networks, movies also provide an opportunity to solidify their brand identity and message to viewers, according to Sci Fi executive vice president for programming and original movies Thomas Vitale. Sci Fi’s Saturday-night block of monster-tinged disaster flicks has become a mainstay of its core audience: 18-to-49-year-old science-fiction enthusiasts.

The network’s movie lineup offers two premieres a month on Saturday nights and one a month on Sunday, featuring such eclectic titles as Flu Bird Horror, Mega Snake and Dead and Deadlier. The films averaged 2.0 million viewers in 2008, an increase of 2% over the previous year.

“Movies have a nice knack of drawing a loyal audience and bring in new viewers,” Vitale said. “Because it’s a standalone program, movies can bring in a new viewer if they are caught by the title and the marketing, while our regular viewers know that we do these movies on a regular basis and appreciate what we do.”

ABC Family has scored with its “millenial” 18-to-34-year-old target audience with several original, family-targeted romantic comedies. The network’s Jan. 18 movie Another Cinderella Story, a modern telling of the Disney classic starring Disney Channel talent Selena Gomez, drew 5.3 million viewers — the biggest audience for any cable movie during the month.

“[Original movies] are an opportunity for us,” said ABC Family president Paul Lee. “There’s a real hunger among viewers for a well-made family movie, and people know that we’re going to make great romantic comedy and they know what we’re going to provide them.”

Thompson points to another reason cable is thriving with original movies: They’re actually good. Once viewed as campy, second-rate productions featuring B-list actors, many entertainment observers now consider cable’s movies to be of theatrical quality.

“The overall quality of this stuff has been really solid,” Thompson said. “And in the multichannel universe, if you tell a really good story, you’ll usually find an audience.”

Along with compelling storylines and strong effects, cable’s original movies have also garnered some of the top celebrities in Hollywood. Actors such the aforementioned Cuba Gooding Jr., Emmy award winner Cicely Tyson (Hallmark’s Relative Stranger) Golden Globe Winner Sigourney Weaver (Lifetime’s Prayers for Bobby) and Emmy Award winner Rosie O’Donnell (Lifetime’s America) are a few of the top actors slated for made-for-cable films in 2009.

“We’re getting the benefit of talent coming to us with their passion projects,” Lifetime’s Lopez said. “There’s a decline in the number of feature films being made, and [actors] know we can reach more viewers than most independent film projects would. When we get a Sigourney Weaver, it breeds confidence in Hollywood that the stigma of TV movies is gone.”

But not all networks that get into the original movie business stay for the long run. Earlier this decade, FX produced several original films such as 44 Minutes and The Pentagon Papers. These days, it’s all but abandoned the genre in favor of such original series as Damages and Nip/Tuck.

TNT — one of the first networks to jump on the original movie bandwagon at the turn of the century, with as many as four films a year —is also concentrating on such scripted series as The Closer and Saving Grace. The network’s February offering Gifted Hands, which tells the true-life story of famed African-American brain surgeon Ben Carson, is the only original movie slated for 2009.

Much like the broadcast networks, Thompson said that general-entertainment networks like TNT and FX are gravitating toward the consistent, steady and loyal audiences delivered by a popular multiepisode scripted series, rather than the more risky hit-and-miss play of original movies.

“When it clicks, nothing works better for a television network than the habit-forming model based on series television,” he said. “The made-for-TV movie always has a risk that unless you can put it into a series slot, it wouldn’t find an audience.”

To help build repeat viewing for its movies, networks like Sci Fi have begun to brand their weekly movie premiere nights. Two years ago, the NBC Universal-owned channel branded its Saturday-night movie block as “Sci Fi Saturdays: The most dangerous night of television,” so viewers knew when to tune in for the network’s originals.

“Just like every episode in a series is part of the greater whole, each movie is part of the 'most dangerous night on television,’ so the movies are almost like our Saturday-night series,” Vitale said.

Hallmark also sets its originals for Saturdays to build familiarity and drive repeat tune-in, said Kenin. The network averaged more than 2 million viewers for its original movies in 2008.

“We often refer to our movies as series because it basically has that concept of regularity — same night, same time all year long,” he said. “Basically, every other week there’s a new movie on, which gives our audience an opportunity to make a schedule for it, and our audience is very loyal.”

To make sure its audience gets to see its original films, Lifetime will debut a new movie over three or four days in an effort to build a cumulative audience over several runs.

“We love the premiere and driving our viewers to a particular night, but a successful movie for us is the one that viewers keep coming back to,” Lopez said.

For the short-term, network executives say cable’s original movies will play well among cash-tapped viewers with limited entertainment options.

Opportunities to repeat original films — which helps to amortize production costs — are even greater for Hallmark and Lifetime, which offer stand-alone digital cable movie channels.

“I think there is a sense that some of the entertainment slack is being taken up by free entertainment, which is television,” said Thompson. “There’s a larger audience available to be entertained by television that 12 months ago might likely have been out to dinner or in the theaters.”

In the near future, Lifetime’s Lopez said viewers would look to watch original movie content on an on-demand basis, whether it’s on via the television or the Web.

“Our audience is becoming much more online-savvy, and I think that’s where our growth will be for us,” she said, although Lifetime has no specific plans to offer movies online. “Distributors will make movies much more available to viewers’ timeline versus the network’s scheduled time line.”

But whether it’s distributed through linear cable or via new media outlets, Thompson said cable networks would continue to roll the cameras on original films.

“The advantage cable channels have is that they know who their audience is and what they want, so a Disney can afford to do a cheesy, preteen made-for-TV movie that can be a huge hit because that’s their audience,” he said. “There’s no walking away from that.”

Basic Blockbusters
The top 10 most-watched original cable movies:

Movie Network Date Viewership (in 000s)
*SOURCE: ABC Disney analysis of Nielsen Media data
High School Musical 2Disney08/17/0718,639
Crossfire TrailTNT01/21/0112,519
Rugrats: All Growed UpNick07/21/0111,913
Moby Dick, Part 1USA03/15/9810,913
Camp RockDisney06/20/0810,106
Broken Trail, Part 1AMC06/25/0610,010
Moby Dick, Part 2USA03/16/989,977
Broken Trail, Part 2AMC06/26/069,919
Call Me ClausTNT12/02/019,443
SpongeBob’s SquarePantis AtlantisNick11/12/079,222
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