It’s time to pour one on the curb for the TV movie.
The form, created by ABC in the 1960’s as “original motion pictures for television”, was killed again – this time by the same network some 50 years later thanks to a remake of the 1987 classic Dirty Dancing in a quest by an industry to reboot anything and everything ever made.
You won’t find Jennifer Grey or Patrick Swayze here (Swayze died in 2009.) In fact, none of the stars of the original movie appeared in the remake – a very wise move on their part.
So what happened to the TV movie? Once a strong way of storytelling, the TV movie has now been regulated to the upper echelons of cable TV. While TV movies in the 1970’s and 1980’s mainly dealt with social and justice issues, today’s made-fors centers around En Vogue saving Christmas, an ill-fated, poorly-written farce about the life of R&B superstar Aaliyah, and behind-the-scenes turmoil on Beverly Hills, 90210 and Saved by the Bell.
And of course, don’t forget the very tired Sharknado franchise, which basically pioneered the concept of “hate-watching” (though fans watching the Chicago Bears play every week can also stake this claim.)
The TV movie has seen better days. In 1971, ABC aired Brian’s Song, featuring a strong teleplay about the relationship of the Bears’ Gayle Sayers and Brian Piccolo, who was dying of cancer. Made-fors became commonplace at the Big 3 networks in the 1970’s and 1980’s, with all three networks airing Sunday movies at one point. TV movies often took on controversial subjects including 1973’s Sticks And Stones (Vietnam), 1974’s Born Innocent (teenage delinquency) and A Case of Rape and 1984’s The Burning Bed (spousal abuse.) Another (The Day After, dealing with a nuclear holocaust) was the most-watched TV movie of all time.
But by the late 1980’s, the format drifted away from strong storytelling to silly topics, inaccurate depictions, and the damsel-in-distress type. In 1991, New York Times TV Critic John J. O’Connnor lambasted the form, stating in a review for CBS’ Her Wicked Ways: “Few artifacts of popular culture invite more condescension than the made-for-television movie. There are some notable exceptions, usually those more ambitious productions inevitably nominated for Emmy Awards, but most television movies seem perfectly content to be, at best, mediocre.”
The low point came in the mid-1990’s when CBS, NBC, and ABC all adapted movies based on “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher. By the turn of the century, the TV movie was all but dead at the broadcast networks, preferring instead to invest in more original dramas, a move that paid off as it led to increased revenue from international sales.
Cable networks such as FX, TNT, USA, and various predecessors of Freeform followed suit a decade ago in dumping the made-for format to invest in original dramas, leading to more than 450 scripted series, in “Peak TV”.
So now, the made-fors are the butt of everyone’s jokes, regulated to Lifetime, SyFy, and The Hallmark Channel, where older stars can still pick up a paycheck or an IMDB credit. And the shoddy writing and production of fare such as Dirty Dancing proves the TV movie has no place in the so-called second “Golden Age of TV”.
Here’s several reactions from Dirty Dancing on Twitter – almost overwhelmingly negative.
I didn't have the time of my life, and I'll feel like this way again. #DirtyDancing
— Pte. Malarkey ☘️ (@NorthenSoldier) May 25, 2017
No one can ever replace Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze. Foh. #DirtyDancing
— #BROKEN Bella Vita (@Bella_Vita718) May 25, 2017
— paul matye (@themanmzzan) May 25, 2017
WTF is this #dirtydancing. AWFUL.
— Danielle (@daniellee_89) May 25, 2017
— mommaneens (@NeenRaspa) May 25, 2017
Somehow, the Dirty Dancing remake managed to sneak in footage from a San Francisco 49ers game:
— Genesa Camacho (@camacho_gen) May 25, 2017
If it were 1993 (when the team was bad), even I would have picked the Mets:
— Amy Fancher (@akfanch) May 25, 2017
And of course, we can’t let this end without a few Mystery Science Theater 3000 references:
— Ben Zoldan (@BenZoldan) May 25, 2017
— Fabbri's Hair (@FabbrisHair) May 25, 2017
According to Nielsen final ratings, Dirty Dancing earned a 1.4 rating in the adults 18-49 demo and drew a total of 6.6 million viewers. Dirty Dancing finished behind CBS’ Survivor season finale and Fox’s Empire, which has quality problems of its own. The ratings performance, like the movie, was truly underwhelming.
As you know, we don’t have a Made-for-TV movie wing at the T Dog Media TV Hall Of Shame – if we did, the number of inductees would easily top 1,000 with Dirty Dancing probably at the head of the list.
So rest in peace, TV movie. After being relevant for so long, you are now old and obsolete in a world of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and hundreds of scripted shows. Give me a call when Lifetime summons The Rolling Stones to save Thanksgiving.