The telefilm continues its long, slow descent

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Consider the lowly made-for-TV movie. In its heyday of the 1980s, it ruled with a singular dominance. Hundreds were produced and aired by ABC, NBC and CBS each year for a while. Most weeks, they ran at least two, often three of them. They documented every disease, every spousal abuse scenario, every imaginable criminal act (both fictionalized and fact-inspired).

And now, well, they've virtually been wiped from the broadcast television map. Poof! Gone. It's right up there with David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear. I mean, when was the last time you watched an original telepic on one of the networks?

I bring this up now because it came out on Sunday during ABC's portion of the semiannual Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena that ABC is going to roll through an entire fall-to-spring TV season without airing a single new telefilm. Yep, not even one, as confirmed by ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson.

The original strategy had been to air one this season: a remake of the classic "A Raisin in the Sun." But that is now being earmarked for next season. Circumstances are conspiring to keep the season free of telefilms entirely at ABC for perhaps the first time in more than 35 years.

McPherson insists the deep-sixing of the genre isn't by design and that it remains a big-event programming element at least during sweeps. But it has now been reduced to "select opportunities" that can "round out the overall creative" at a network rather than a regular piece of the primetime puzzle.

The story is pretty much the same at NBC and CBS. Movies or two-night miniseries will show up in November, February or May, if at all. The sheer tonnage of telefilms oversaturated the market, and in tandem with their dwindling cost-effectiveness and lack of co-production opportunities with international players, it has spelled increasing obsolescence.

It has fallen to cable to keep the telefilm candle trickling at all. Lifetime and Hallmark, in particular, seem not to have received the memo that the genre is on life support, still making new pics in the double-digits annually.

But pay cable has largely dropped the ball, too. Showtime, which was making an astonishing 45 to 50 new movies annually as recently as the mid-1990s under former programming chief Jerry Offsay, didn't produce a single new one during the past year. Even HBO, which carved its reputation on quality flicks with bloated budgets and cinematic production values, has trimmed the number of movies it makes to a mere handful.

This death knell for the telepic isn't new, of course. However, the seeming finality of the genre's fall from grace is of more recent vintage. That whole idea of everything being cyclical and an imminent turnaround in its fortunes is no longer the way to bet. The telefilm certainly will never return to the robust health it enjoyed 20 years ago. The question is whether it can ever again rise above the level of afterthought.

The Directors Guild of America has taken upon itself to remind everyone what a glorious piece of the American entertainment scene the made-for-TV movie has remained through nearly four decades of life. An ongoing campaign touts it as a great television staple that cannot be allowed to wither and expire. It's too vital, too valuable, too artistic.

Of course, the DGA also has a vested interest in a telefilm rebound, given that its members prefer work to unemployment. While I empathize with their plight and their point, the market is unfortunately what it is. And right now, sadly, the Grim Reaper beckons.
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