Anyone who grew up in the 1970’s remembers The ABC Movie of the Week, the ABC network’s attempt to boost its anemic ratings by producing a weekly made-for-television movie. With no set format other than restrictions of budget and the censors, the movies covered a number of genres including horror, science fiction, drama, adventure, and comedy. The films included a variety of stars, both from television and film, and even led to TV series. While some of the films haven’t held up well over time, the movie of the week produced classics fondly remembered by viewers (and thanks to home video, some of the films are available to watch). The series' impact on television is still seen today.
As Michael McKenna details in his book, The ABC Movie of the Week: Big Movies for the Small Screen, ABC was a distant third in the television ratings. ABC was the brunt of jokes, earning the nickname “Almost Broadcasting Company” and comedians remarking, “How do you end the Vietnam War? Put it on ABC and it’ll be over in six weeks,” History has shown that desperation sometimes leads to innovation, and that’s what happened with The ABC Movie of the Week.
The made-for-television movie did not begin with ABC, but ABC took it to unprecedented heights. When television began gaining popularity, Hollywood was cautious of the new medium, seeing it as a strong rival. After all, why would people pay for a movie ticket if they could watch television for free at home? Hollywood was reluctant to release films to television and when they did, they typically charged exorbitant licensing fees. These screenings could be big ratings draw, but networks toyed with the idea of making their own films, eventually giving things a go. Eventually, the networks produced their own films, but by the end of the 1960's the struggling ABC network would look to the made-for-television movie in a desperate bid for ratings.
Producer Roy Huggins, the TV genius who created hits such as Maverick, The Untouchables, and The Fugitive approached ABC about producing a series of weekly television movies. ABC was reluctant as they were unsure whether Huggins could produce that many films. After Huggins discussed the project in Variety, ABC went ahead with the idea, forming their own TV film production movie after Universal demanded ABC use them exclusively for producing their pictures and a higher cost. Huggins was offered the chance to produce eight films, but passed. Instead, ABC brought in various directors, initially settling on a budget of $350,000 per film.
The series aired in a ninety-minute slot on Tuesday evenings, allowing for creative scheduling. While contemporary movies often ran 90 minutes and more, so-called “B” movies often ran less, as did some films considered classics. The cost of a 75-minute film made the project more feasible and ABC continued with the project. The ninety-minute format made for strategic programming as ABC capitalized on one of its strongest shows to serve as a lead-in to its new film series. ABC began its prime-time line-up with The Mod Squad at 7:30p.m. Eastern Standard Time EST followed by the ABC Movie of the Week at 8:30p.m EST. This allowed ABC to air Marcus Welby, M.D. an hour-long show at 10p.m. EST, eventually forming a dominant Tuesday night lineup.
Director Steven Spielberg's Duel was the sign of great things to come after his jump to the silver screen.
While some believed ABC films would be second-rate productions, some of the movies proved to be of feature film level quality. Movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Duel, and Dan Curtis’ The Night Stalker were but two films that could have ran in theatres. ABC’s films drew critical acclaim and awards with films such as Brian’s Song drawing strong ratings and critical praise. The movies also featured film and TV actors who wanted to step out of their traditionally cast roles. For example, film legend Bing Cosby starred in the film, Dr. Cook’s Garden as a seemingly kindly doctor who rids his town of those he deems as undesirables. Edward G. Robinson starred in the poignant drama The Old Man Who Cried Wolf. Bewitched TV star Elizabeth Montgomery distanced herself from comedy, starring as ax murderer Lizzie Borden in The Legend of Lizzie Borden while I Dream of Jeannie’s Barbara Eden starred in the sci-fi thriller, The Stranger Within.
The film Brian's Song became legendary with its gripping tale of NFL player Brian Piccolo's heroic battle with terminal cancer.
As Alexander Dumas once said, “nothing succeeds like success.” The ABC Movie of the Week proved successful, with ABC expanding the series to a second night. Other networks saw ABC’s success and began airing their own made-for-TV movies (although the made-for-television movie had been around before, ABC’s success led to made-for-television movies popping up on NBC and CBS).
Unfortunately, as often happens, the success led to excess. In 1971, ABC added a second movie-of-the week, airing it on Saturday nights. In 1973, ABC aired its ABC Suspense Movie, meaning the network had three nights of movies. By the end of its run, ABC had killed its golden goose and the proliferation of TV movies turned into a quantity over quality affair. After six seasons, ABC cancelled The ABC Movie of the Week.
While the weekly television movie was dead, the genre lived on for decades. It also evolved into the event known as the television mini-series. These lavish productions often adapted popular novels, sometimes lasting over a week. Mini-series such as QBVII, Roots, and Rich Man, Poor Man proved the new genre’s popularity, extending into the 1980’s as the television mini-series became event television.
Although the made for television movie is a rarity on network television, it lives on in cable whether it’s the maudlin Lifetime Original Movie or Sy-Fy’s spawn of films such as the Sharknado series.
Over the next several months, I’ll be looking at some classic television movies, beginning in October with the many horror and suspense movies that appeared over the years, some of which attained legendary status among original viewers and new viewers.
Marill, Alvin. Movies Made for Television: The Telefeature and the Mini-Series: 1964-1986. New York Zoetrope, 1987.
McKenna, Michael. The ABC Movie of the Week: Big Movies for the Small Screen. Scarecrow Press, 2013.
Reyes, Amanda. Are You In The House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium. 1964-1999.