Beginning as merely an inexpensive way to fill time in a network's schedule in the 1960s, the made-for-television movie has grown into a staple of network and cable television programming. More made-for-television movies are broadcast on network television each year than movies are released in theaters, and cable channels such as USA Network, Lifetime, and HBO all rely heavily on their own original movies to attract audiences. Although there are inadequacies inherent in the television movie formula—budgets are lower than for theatrical releases, commercial interruptions are distracting, and the television medium is more likely to restrict content than is the motion picture—made-for-television movies have risen in quality and critical acclaim over the years, so that now a made-for-television movie can be quite prestigious, justifiably attracting large audiences among television viewers who are looking for material that they might not find elsewhere.
The first made-for-television movie was planned to be The Killers, a 1964 picture directed by Don Siegel and a remake of the 1946 film noir of the same name. Upon completion, the movie was found too violent to be shown on television and was released theatrically instead. See How They Run, a thriller about three children being pursued by hitmen, became the first made-for-television film when it aired on NBC in October 1964. Both The Killers and See How They Run were produced by Universal Studios, the company that pioneered the made-for-television concept and produced the vast majority of them in the first few years of television movies. From the >1964-65 television season through the 1968-69 season there were 38 television movies broadcast; 29 of them were made by Universal. The studio saw four advantages to producing made-for-television movies: many of its television movies also doubled as pilots for future series (Ironside; Columbo; Dragnet; Marcus Welby, M.D.; The Name of the Game; The Bold Ones; Night Gallery; and The Outsider were all introduced by Universal in this way in the 1960s; so were Hawaii Five-O and Medical Center, but not by Universal); made-for-television movies could also be released theatrically in other countries, which Universal frequently did with great financial success; an above-average movie designated for television could easily be diverted to American theaters instead (in the 1960s Universal released 17 motion pictures that began as made-for-television movies); and some of Universal's television movies were remakes of its older films, which meant the studio could reuse props, costumes, and sets (the second made-for-television movie, for example, The Hanged Man, was a remake of Ride the Pink Horse).
By 1969 the television movie had become so popular that ABC scheduled The Movie of the Week, a series of films all of which were made for television. At that time, suspense and comedy films dominated, not the social problem movies that later became standard. Male leads were commonplace, usually middle-aged performers who had had successful television careers in the 1950s and 1960s; performers such as John Forsythe, Robert Stack, and Lloyd Bridges became frequent television movie stars. The Movie of the Week itself ran for only 90 minutes, with commercials, meaning that the average ABC made-for-television movie was less than an hour and fifteen minutes long. Two-hour movies were still common, however, and Vanished, produced by Universal from Fletcher Knebel's political thriller, ran for two consecutive nights in March 1971 for a total of four hours, the first multi-part made-for-television movie. Other noteworthy television movies of this period included Brian's Song, about Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo and his death from cancer; My Sweet Charlie, a film about a close friendship between a black attorney and a pregnant white woman, a role that won Patty Duke the first Emmyever given to a made-for-television movie; That Certain Summer, a sensitive depiction of homosexuality; and The Night Stalker, which starred Darren McGavin as reporter Carl Kolchak, who discovers a vampire is loose in Las Vegas. The Night Stalker became the highest rated made-for-television movie to date when it aired in 1972, and it is still one of the highest rated television movies ever made, as well as being the acknowledged inspiration for The X-Files.
NBC developed a slight variation of the made-for-television movie in 1971 when it introduced The NBC Mystery Movie. This was a rotating series of television movies with recurring characters, meaning that each series would be seen once every three or four weeks. When The NBC Mystery Movie began, it consisted of Columbo, McMillan and Wife, and McCloud. All three programs were produced by Universal, and all three had appeared previously as made-for-television movies. NBC added a second Mystery Movie the next year with three new rotating series, Madigan, Cool Million, and Banacek; and over the next five years many other programs appeared as part of the Mystery Movie series of television movies, none of them as successful as the original three. The rotating television movie format remained popular and was still in use in the 1990s.
In the late 1970s the content of made-for-television movies changed somewhat, with women stars becoming more common and some movies dealing with serious social issues. Elizabeth Montgomery emerged as the "Queen of TV movies" with her frequent appearances in the 1970s and 1980s; she starred in 22 television movies before her death in 1995. (Montgomery's primary competition for television movie queen is Jane Seymour, who had had roles in 39 made-for-television movies or mini-series by 1998; other contenders include Melissa Gilbert with 35; Meredith Baxter with 34; Cheryl Ladd with 27; and Jaclyn Smith with 25.) Perhaps the most acclaimed "social problem" made-for-television movie was Sybil, the story of a multiple-personality victim that won an Emmy for Sally Field. Other television movies addressed spousal abuse (Battered, Intimate Strangers), rape (A Case of Rape), and the physically challenged (Special Olympics). One of the most influential of the social dramas was Walking through Fire, a 1979 made-for-television movie about a woman with Hodgkin's disease. The success of this movie inspired many similar television films in the 1980s, which some critics sardonically referred to as "disease of the week" movies. In addition to the social problem films of this period, there were many quality literary adaptations in the late 1970s, among them Captains Courageous, The Last of the Mohicans, and Too Far to Go, based on a series of John Updike stories. Many of the literary adaptations were produced by Hallmark Cards as part of its Hallmark Hall of Fame series.
Not all television movies of the late 1970s were serious dramas. A generally escapist air permeated network television during this period, and many television movies of the late 1970s reflected that escapism. Action movies were fairly common, supernatural thrillers appeared occasionally, and the success of Charlie's Angels, a television movie before it was a series, led to several "jiggle" movies. Typical movies of the time included Sex and the Married Woman, The Initiation of Sarah, The Seeding of Sarah Burns, Exo-Man, The Spell, Institute for Revenge, Gold of the Amazon Women, and the highest-rated made-for-television movie of the 1978-1979 season, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, one of the first television movies to generate a sequel. Even some of the social problem dramas relied heavily on sensationalism; Little Ladies of the Night, a movie about teen prostitutes that remains one of the highest-rated television movies of all time, spent more time showing its cast in various stages of undress than it did addressing the problem of prostitution.
Another trend emerging in the 1970s was the television series revival. Gilligan's Island, The Mod Squad, and Dobie Gillis all were revived as television movies in the 1970s, a practice now quite common. A surprise success in 1979 was the television movie Elvis; airing against Gone with the Wind and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, the dramatization of the life of Elvis Presley drew bigger audiences than either of the other movies. During the 1978-79 television season, more television movies aired on the three major television networks than were released in theaters. A decade later the ratio of television movies to theatrical movies was almost three to one.
The increasing trend toward serious drama resulted in two particularly controversial made-for-television movies in the early 1980s. The Day After depicted a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the war's aftermath. The film was the subject of much debate before it even aired: some teachers and ministers encouraged families to watch it together and discuss it, nuclear freeze supporters applauded ABC's decision to air the film, and conservative critics feared that it might lead to a relaxed stance toward the Soviets. The movie did become the highest-rated television movie to that date and remains one of the highest rated movies, television or theatrical, ever broadcast. Something about Amelia focused on a teenage girl who suffers from an incestuous relationship with her father. The film was rather frank and certainly not innocuous family fare; the casting of Cheers star Ted Danson as the father shocked some viewers. Television movies had certainly matured since their introduction in 1964; indeed, some critics argued that one was more likely to find rewarding drama on television than at the movie theater.
As HBO and other cable channels recognized the need for original programming, they also began making television movies. The first cable television movie, The Terry Fox Story, was made for HBO in 1983. Today that cable channel makes dozens of television movies each year, as does its rival, Showtime. HBO in particular has undertaken some ambitious projects, including a biography of Stalin starring Robert Duvall and an adaptation of Randy Shilts's history of AIDS research, And the Band Played On. Among basic cable channels, the USA Network is the largest producer of made-for-television movies. USA has been making original movies since 1989, and its 1990 film The China Lake Murders is the highest rated made-for-cable movie ever to be broadcast on a nonpremium channel.
Marrill, Alvin H. Movies Made for Television: The Telefeature and the Mini-Series, 1964-1986. New York, Zoetrope, 1987.