Today's television viewer sees programming of almost any length, this in an age where networks program and counter program with shows that end at 10:01 p.m. and occasionally "supersize" their evening's fare with 40 minute extended episodes. But back in the days when there were only the three major networks, adherence to a strict schedule was paramount and it was a rare day when there was any variance.
So when the idea of a 90 minute movie made for television came along, it was met with great skepticism and reluctance from the three majors. NBC had set a precedent by airing 90 minute television series, The Name of the Game, and also The Virginian. There had been 90 minute anthology programs before too; Playhouse 90 in the 1950s comes to mind. But no else had ever defined that a movie could be less than two hours in length.
The made for television movie had been created in 1964 with a film called "The Killers," starring Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan. Later deemed too violent for TV, it was instead released theatrically. "See How They Run," starring John Forsythe ran on NBC on October 7, 1964 and generally receives the credit as the first movie created for television. And it was two hours long.
In 1968, producer Roy Huggins mulled this concept over in his mind, asking why two hours was considered the magic length. Why couldn't a movie be 90 minutes? After all, he himself had written and directed a 75 minute movie for Columbia in 1953 and many of the studios' B movies (westerns, crime dramas) ran for 75-80 minutes on a double bill. Huggins was a successful producer of TV fare to include Maverick (1957-62), 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64), and The Fugitive (1963-67). Shopping his idea around to the three networks, ABC eventually bought off on it, with Barry Diller, vice president in charge of programming, leading the charge (and also getting all the credit, but that's another story).
ABC, up to this point, had always finished third among the three networks. CBS was known for its sitcoms and variety shows, NBC for various dramas and its pushing the envelope with its color broadcasting of Bonanza, but ABC had no niche to call its own. Perhaps for that reason, ABC often resorted to imaginative ways to forge an identity for itself. CBS and NBC would never have dared to air a prime time cartoon series as ABC did with The Flintstones in the early '60s. Or utilize odd programming tricks as in airing 45 minutes series back to back to counter the "on the hour and half-hour" line of thinking that had dominated the networks' programming for decades. Presumably, this tactic might prevent the viewership from changing channels from ABC to other network offerings because they'd find the programs there already half over.
The ABC Movie of the Week premiered on Tuesday, September 23, 1969 with "Seven in Darkness," a unique film about a plane which crashes in a remote area and in which the survivors, all blind, must band together to stay alive. The concept was a ratings success, both critically and in financial terms for ABC. Other films were pilots for potential series, but many were not.
Some of 1969's other offerings included: "The Ballad of Andy Crocker," starring Lee Majors as a disillusioned Vietnam veteran. This film is considered to be one of the first to examine the plight of Vietnam veterans who returned home to environments of hostility and indifference and doesn't sully itself with the stereotype of the "crazed veteran." "Gidget Grows Up," starring Karen Valentine in the title role who decides to "change the world" by moving from the California beaches to New York to work at the United Nations. "The Over-the-Hill Gang," starring Walter Brennan and other Western stars of yesterday as former Texas Rangers who come out of retirement to clean up a Western town. "Wake Me When the War is Over," starring Ken Berry and Eva Gabor. Berry is a downed American pilot in World War II and Gabor is a German baroness who initially hides him from the Nazis but then neglects to tell him the war has ended, for almost five years.
Despite the pure entertainment value of its offerings, ABC was able to recoup the costs of many of these series pilots for which it had already paid. Ordinarily, many of these pilots would never have aired or have been burned off in some nether regions of the summer schedule where few would see them. But by airing them under the ABC Movie of the Week banner, ABC could gauge the series' appeal to viewers as well as earn extra advertising revenues. Many of these pilots later became series, such as the '70s staples Starsky and Hutch, Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Marcus Welby, M.D.
Of course, The ABC Movie of the Week spawned imitators on the other networks and, in time, ABC opened the franchise to other days of the week- The ABC Wednesday Movie of the Week, The ABC Movie of the Weekend, and The ABC Suspense Movie. All told, 247 movies made for television aired until the concept ran its course in May of 1975. By then, ABC had become known as the "movie network" and used this as a foundation for eventually becoming the number 1 network in the 1970s. By then, it had made peace with other types of programming- specifically sitcoms with a lineup that included the mega-hits Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy.
It can be argued that ABC's eventual success harkens back to the late 1960s with Roy Huggins' vision that questioned the obvious. Sometimes it just takes somebody asking "why" to instigate a lasting change.
About the author: David Galassie is a human resources specialist in Columbia, South Carolina. In his free time, he pursues popular culture- movies, television, music, comic books, and animation art. A frequent contributor to Rewind the Fifties, he chronicles the more notable acts of the 1960s as well as many obscure bands and one hit wonders.
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