BOSTON — From romantic period pieces to history dramas to family comedies, made-for-TV movies are looking good. Many more are better written, better made, better acted, and have more substantive things to say than they did only a few short years ago.
Monsters, mayhem, and drivel still haunt the airwaves, of course, and mafiosi and psychos still strut like peacocks in impossible adventures. But the number of sensationalist reenactments of rapes, murders, and other horrors appears to be declining.
There has always been meaningful TV theater, with dedicated producers like "Hallmark Hall of Fame" and "Masterpiece Theatre." But lately, more and more intelligent movies have joined their ranks. Think of 1995's Emmy Award-winning "Joseph," last fall's "Cinderella," and this month's "The Long Way Home."
In fact, the general perception of many television executives and writers is that their viewers are looking for stories that are character driven, "emotionally intelligent," and much more concerned with ordinary people in real-life struggles.
"The question of meaning is coming back," says producer Craig Anderson ("The Piano Lesson" and CBS's coming "The Staircase"). "I think we are all desperate to make sense out of who we individually are and what our purpose is."
So TV producers are turning to important works of literature more often, cultivating more clever scripts with pro-social attitudes, and trying harder to entertain viewers with smarter stories.
"We can't be lazy about programming," says Lindy DeKoven, executive vice president for miniseries and movies at NBC. "Our society is far more sophisticated.... There are so many options [on TV]; we are forced to create appointment television" - that is, television that people want to see so much that they make arrangements to tune in.
Many TV executives note that costume dramas, especially based on classic novels, never go out of fashion. The 27-year-old success of PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre" attests to the public's interest in them.
"There is such a taste for period dramas," says WGBH's Rebecca Eaton. "These [films] are very easy on the eyes. However, underneath there is a sophistication and a profound quality.... Our British partners [at the BBC] know how to stretch the pound sterling."
TNT has found a niche in another form of costume drama - the re-creation of American and biblical history. "We look for wonderful, untold stories," says Julie Weitz, executive vice president of original programming. One such story was "Buffalo Soldiers," about an ex-slave contingent of the US Cavalry after the Civil War. For Danny Glover, who starred, it was a "passion project," says Ms. Weitz.
More and more often, first-rate Hollywood talent (actors, writers, producers, and directors) forgo their accustomed big-feature salaries to do a small TV picture they believe in, as Mr. Glover did. Both Barbra Streisand and Robert De Niro are producing movies for NBC this year. Barbara Hershey stars in "The Staircase" with Diane Ladd. William H. Macy ("Fargo") wrote and stars in "The Con" for USA Network. Richard Benjamin ("Mermaids," "Mrs. Winterbourne") directed "The Pentagon Wars" for HBO and "Tourist Trap" for ABC's "Wonderful World of Disney." To name just a few.
The average television movie costs about $3 million to $4 million; the average theatrical release, $30 million to $40 million. But even lavish spectacles (with feature-sized budgets) are being shot to suit the aesthetics of the small screen. Last year, producer Robert Halmi made Homer's "The Odyssey" (NBC) and this year, "Moby Dick" (USA). Every image in these two movies was composed for television's dimensions rather than the movie theater, so each image has a uniquely beautiful quality.
One reason often cited for the improvement in TV movies is the recognition that women viewers drive their ratings. More women watch TV or make the decision about what shows to watch. "We always look for the hook that will engage a female audience," says producer John Davis (ABC's coming "Miracle at Midnight") about the movies he makes.
CBS's Sunta Izzicupo, vice president of movies for television, points out that programming for women has improved the image of men. "Instead of those ripped-from-the-headlines, women-in-jeopardy films, which were about men hurting women," Ms. Izzicupo says, "we have more humane men now on our network. Now there are more men in relationships with women, in marriages, and acting in a kinder way."
Izzicupo points to a coming movie called "A Father for Brittany" in which a young wife dies before the couple has finalized its adoption of a baby. When the adoption agency tries to take the child from the husband (Andrew McCarthy), he fights to keep her.
"Our female viewers want to see a man that dedicated to his wife and children," she says, adding that what makes a CBS movie is an emotional agenda at its core. CBS movies "are relationship stories, and often they [deal with] social issues," she says.
CBS is also the present home of "Hallmark Hall of Fame," which began programming in 1951 and currently presents four television movies a year aimed at adults - though parents need not fear for their seven-year-old walking in on a "Hallmark" story. Jan Parkinson, vice president of "HHF," echoes Izzicupo's sentiments when he says, "I think TV films are presently trying to tackle [subjects] that are a little more challenging, more ambitious.... If you look around, there are a lot more high-profile people working behind and before the camera.... The competition for material today is very intense."
"Oprah Winfrey Presents," which ABC plans to offer twice a year, is book-based. The two shows so far, "Before Women Had Wings" and "The Wedding," have been highly polished, literate, and thoughtful.
"We are looking for projects that help people look at their lives a little differently - what Oprah does on a daily basis," says Kate Forte, executive vice president of Harpo Films. "Stories that engage the heart, lift the spirit, and stimulate the mind. But what I also do look for is that they be compelling, unpredictable, high-quality stories that seem to ally themselves with our beliefs."
ABC has virtually cornered the Sunday-night family flick with "The Wonderful World of Disney" - all high-caliber movies, a little more than half of which are made for television, and the rest garnered from the Disney library or from other respectable sources.
Charles Hirschhorn, president of Walt Disney Television, notes that "Wonderful World" is in its ninth permutation. It began in 1954 on ABC as a variety hour.
"I think a lot of things have come around to our favor," Mr. Hirschhorn says. "Children who grew up on this show now have children of their own and are looking to offer their families a piece of their childhood. The theatrical film business has become, increasingly, giant events. The traditional family film is just not as present theatrically."
"Wonderful World" movies share, he says, broad family appeal - children, teens, young adults, parents. And Disney Television tries to be very responsible about the moral content of these movies.
The moral content Disney is so careful about is not necessarily uppermost in the minds of others. Ratings, for example, are often a practical consideration with the networks. Ms. DeKoven, who says NBC programs for as wide an audience as possible, points out, "You get a report card [ratings]. You can see how well you did - or how poorly."
When good films are successful, more good films will be made. NBC presented "Gulliver's Travels" two years ago, and the success of that literate miniseries, DeKoven says, made possible last year's hit spectacle "The Odyssey." And the success of that has led to this year's extravaganza "Merlin" (airs April 26 and 27). She is currently developing "Brave New World," "Noah's Ark," and "Crime and Punishment."
So there is a sense that every time we turn on the TV, we are casting a vote. USA president Rod Perth says of his coming special, "If 'Moby Dick' is successful, it will have tremendous influence on other films we produce. Interestingly, there is a real appetite among advertisers to find these kinds of programming vehicles. And that reality combined with robust ratings will help us to reach more often for classic American literature."
Movies to watch for In March:
The Con: USA, March 14. Rebecca DeMornay stars with William H. Macy ("Fargo") in this cleverly written redemption tale about a con artist and her victim-savior. Far-fetched, but delightful.
Pentagon Wars: HBO, March 16, 18. Riveting, sardonic tale of government waste stars Kelsey Grammer ("Frasier"), directed by Richard Benjamin.
A Father for Brittany: CBS, March 15. Andrew McCarthy stars in this touching story about a man's fight to keep his adoptive daughter after his young wife's untimely death. Scenes of terminal illness are tough (a real tear-jerker), but the triumph of love is persuasive.
Wonderful World of Disney: Mr. Headmistress - ABC, March 15. A con man on the run, disguised as headmistress of a terrible girls' school, becomes a better man and turns the school into a better place. Goofy fun.
Wonderful World of Disney: Safety Patrol - ABC, March 29. A farce like "Naked Gun," only for kids. Leslie Nielsen has a small role complete with pratfalls.
The Wonderful World of Disney: Tourist Trap - ABC, April 5. Richard Benjamin directs this sweet, quirky comedy about a family discovering just how functional it really is. Daniel Stern stars.
The Staircase: CBS, April 12. Transcending the culture of a specific religion, this excellent film about a nun who learns the true meaning of her life - and the implications of forgiveness - is universal in appeal.
Mystery! Daughters of Cain: PBS, April 9, 16. A chilling detective story about the disposal of a nasty abusive husband. John Thaw stars as the engaging Inspector Morse.
Mystery! An Unsuitable Job for a Woman: PBS, April 23, May 7. A really different murder-mystery in which the detective is no grizzled older man, but a sensitive young woman who never lets her sweet temperament interfere with business.