Television film  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A television movie (also known as a television film, TV film, TV movie, TV-movie, feature-length drama, made-for-TV movie, original movie, movie of the week (MOTW or MOW), single drama, telemovie, or telefilm) is a feature film that is produced for and originally distributed by a television network.


Origins and history

Though not explicitly labelled as such, there were early precedents for "TV movies," such as the 1957 version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, starring Van Johnson, one of the first filmed "family musicals" made directly for television. (Most "family musicals" of the time, siuch as High Tor, were broadcast live and preserved on kinescope, which is not precisely the same as film or even videotape.) Hundreds of live, feature-length dramas aired on television from the 1940s through the 1950s, including such famous productions as 1956's Requiem for a Heavyweight by screenwriter Rod Serling; as was typical but not universal, this live broadcast was preserved on kinescope for rebroadcast. These were not, strictly speaking, films, as they were originally telecast live.

The term "made-for-TV movie" was coined in the United States in the early 1960s as an incentive for movie audiences to stay home and watch what was promoted as the equivalent of a first-run theatrical motion picture. Beginning in 1961 with NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, a prime time network showing of a television premiere of major studio film, the other networks soon copied the format with each of the networks having several "___ Night At The Movies" that led to a shortage of film studio product. The first of these made-for-TV movies is generally acknowledged to be See How They Run, which debuted on NBC on 7 October 1964. A previous film, The Killers, starring Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, was filmed as a TV-movie, although NBC decided it was too violent for television and it was released theatrically instead.

These features originally filled a 90-minute time slot (including commercials), later expanded to two hours, and were usually broadcast as a weekly anthology series (for example, the ABC Movie of the Week). Many early TV movies featured major stars, and some were accorded higher budgets than standard series television programs of the same length, including the major dramatic anthology programs which they came to replace.

Notable examples

The most-watched TV movie of all time was ABC's The Day After, which aired on November 20, 1983, to an estimated audience of 100 million people. The film depicted America after a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and was the subject of much controversy and discussion at the time of its release.

Another popular and critically acclaimed TV movie was 1971's Duel directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Dennis Weaver. Such was the quality and popularity of Duel that it was released to cinemas in Europe and Australia, and had a limited cinema release to some venues in the United States. The 1971 made-for-TV Brian's Song was also briefly released to theatres after its success on television, and was even remade in 2001. However, many 1970s TV movies were a source of controversy, such as Linda Blair's movies Born Innocent and Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, as well as Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway and Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn, which were vehicles for former Brady Bunch actress Eve Plumb.

My Sweet Charlie (1970) with Patty Duke and Al Freeman, Jr. dealt with racial prejudice, and That Certain Summer (1972), starring Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen, although controversial, was considered the first TV movie to approach the subject of homosexuality in a non-threatening manner. If These Walls Could Talk, a film which deals with abortion in three different decades (1950s, 1970s, and 1990s) became a huge success, and HBO's highest rated film ever.

Often a successful series may spawn a TV movie sequel after ending its run, and TV movies may also be used as the first episode of a series, otherwise known as a pilot. For example, Babylon 5: The Gathering launched the science fiction series Babylon 5 and is considered to be distinct from the show's regular run of one-hour episodes. Babylon 5 also has several sequel TV movies set within the same fictional continuity. The 2003 remake of Battlestar Galactica begin as a two-part miniseries that later continued as a television show. Another example is the TV Movie Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, which launched the TV show of the same name, and used the same actress Melissa Joan Hart for the lead role in both. The term "TV-movie" is also frequently used as vehicles for "reunions" of long-departed series, as in Return to Mayberry and A Very Brady Christmas.

Occasionally TV movies are used as sequels to successful theatrical films. For example, only the first film in The Parent Trap series was released theatrically. The Parent Trap II, III and IV were TV-movies.

TV movies are often broadcast on major networks during sweeps season or on cable networks that specialize in producing them such as Hallmark Channel, Lifetime, and HBO.

Production and quality

It has been said that "few artifacts of popular culture invite more condescension than the made-for-television movie". Network-made TV movies in the USA have tended to be inexpensively-produced and low quality; stylistically, they often resemble single episodes of dramatic television series. Often they are made to "cash in" on the interest centering on stories currently prominent in the news, as the Amy Fisher films were. The stories are written to reach periodic semi-cliffhangers coinciding with the network-scheduled times for the insertion of commercials; they are further managed to fill, but not exceed, the fixed running times allotted by the network to each movie "series". The movies tend to rely on small casts and a limited range of settings and camera setups, and tend to progress in a literal, linear fashion. Even Spielberg's Duel, while a well-crafted film, features a very small cast (apart from Weaver, all other acting roles are bit-parts) and mostly outdoors shooting locations in the desert. The movies are typically made by smaller crews, and they rarely feature expensive special effects. Often they are recorded in less expensive video rather than the preferred motion picture medium of film. Various techniques are often employed to "pad" TV movies with low budgets and underdeveloped scripts, such as music video-style montages, flashbacks, or repeated footage, and extended periods of dramatic slow motion footage (sometimes taken to ridiculous extremes as in the USA Network thriller Wheels of Terror). However, the digital 24p video format has made some improvements on the TV movie market.

HBO's made-for-television movies, however, have been generally praised as being of high quality, some critics even going so far as to say that they surpass current theatrical offerings, and have won many Emmy Awards. Among recent notable HBO films are Angels in America, Something the Lord Made, Warm Springs and The Gathering Storm. All latter three are biopics.

Some would claim that over the last twenty years or so, the quality of the typical made-for-TV film has hit a new low, with many of them being "quickie" productions based on tabloid-like headlines such as the Amy Fisher incident, which generated not one, but three TV-films. Typical recent plots associated with the genre include "disease of the week" movies or films about domestic violence. Sexual abuse is also a common theme, though not always the focus of the storyline.

Movie-length episodes of TV shows

Occasionally, a long-running television series is used as the basis for TV movies that air during the show's run (as opposed to the above-mentioned "reunion specials"). Typically, such movies employ a filmed single-camera setup even if the TV series is videotaped using a multiple-camera setup, but are written to be easily broken up into individual thirty- or sixty-minute episodes for syndication. Many such movies relocate the cast of the show to an exotic overseas setting. However, although they may be advertised as movies, they are really simply extended episodes of TV shows, such as the final episode of M*A*S*H. Most of these are made and shown during sweeps period in order to attract a large TV audience and boost television ratings for a show.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Television film" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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