Crime rules in prime time

April 25, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Tatum O'Neal plays a police officer called Bambi charged with the murder of her lover's ex-wife in NBC's "Woman on the Run: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story." Elizabeth Montgomery stars as churchgoing woman who poisons her husband, as well as her boyfriend, in "Black Widow Murders: The Blanche Taylor Moore Story" for NBC.

Gary Cole portrays a Vietnam veteran who starts out as a bodyguard and winds up a murderer in "When Love Kills: The Seduction of John Hearn" on CBS. And Tim Roth is a Nebraska teen-ager who takes his 14-year-old girlfriend on a killing spree in ABC's "Murder in the Heartland."

True-crime drama. It's the TV programming trend of the season. And the most outrageous example so far is the three different network versions of Amy Fisher's story, each of which claimed to be the "true" account of the Long Island teen-ager's affair with Joey Buttafuoco and the girl's attempt to kill the man's wife.

But there's much more to come. The four story lines mentioned above are but a few of the true-crime movies that will be broadcast during the May ratings sweeps, which start Wednesday.

Furthermore, there are so many similar made-for-TV movies in production that viewers are guaranteed a steady diet of prime-time-as-crime-time straight through next year's TV season.

"The disease of the week has become the murder of the week in TV movies," said Michael O'Hara, a writer and producer who will have two of his true-crime films -- "Murder in the Heartland" and NBC's "Moment of Truth: Why My Daughter?" -- broadcast in coming weeks.

"The reality in today's marketplace is that, if you are a producer, you are going to be making some true-crime movies. Otherwise, you're not going to be in business. . . . It's close to impossible to sell fiction to the networks."

Emmy Award-winning producer Leonard Hill agreed, saying, "I think there is an inundation of true crime. . . . There is also for the foreseeable future the prospect that such fact-based and ripped-from-the-headlines drama will be the backbone of television movies."

True-crime stories have always been around -- from Shakespeare to the Bible. But television didn't seriously take up the form until the 1980s.

The first true-crime ratings blockbuster was NBC's "Murder in Texas," starring Farrah Fawcett.

The 1980 miniseries was based on Tommie Thompson's "Blood and Money," an acclaimed nonfiction account of a Houston surgeon who killed his wife.

"Through the '80s, then, there were usually one or two true-crime pieces during every major sweeps period," O'Hara said. "The big difference today is that it's gotten to the point where all you can see on TV is true crime."

The most obvious reason for the glut of true-crime films is the huge ratings the Amy Fisher stories generated and the networks' tendency to imitate such formulas for success.

"We saw cycles where [the networks] did a lot of disease movies, a lot of comedies, a lot of action movies," Hill said. "Now it's true-crime stories. I think the Amy Fisher phenomenon unfortunately advanced the cycle in that direction."

Downsizing did it

But O'Hara -- a NBC publicist before turning to motion picture production -- said deeper, institutional changes at the networks also are involved. He and others say true-crime movies are yet another result of drastic downsizing at the networks in the 1980s.

Their argument is that because of massive layoffs and cutbacks in publicity departments, the networks no longer have the staff or the expertise to promote made-for-TV movies. Furthermore, with less than two-thirds of the audience they had 10 years ago, the networks now reach far fewer viewers with their on-air promotions.

As a result, the networks tend to make only those movies that audiences know something about, such as headline-making cases like Amy Fisher's. In short, these movies get made because they're easy to sell.

As Hill put it, "The handle for promotion is often more important than the quality of drama."

NBC's "Woman on Trial: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story," with Tatum O'Neal as Bembenek, is a good example of how a film can cut through the clutter and register in viewers' minds before it airs or before NBC spends a nickel on promotion.

On virtually every bookstand in supermarkets there are copies of the paperback book, "Woman on Trial," written by Bembenek. And splashed across the cover of the book is: "The most glamorous murder case of the decade" -- Diane Sawyer, "PrimeTime Live." Bembenek is booked on all the major TV talk shows in May. ABC already made a movie about Bembenek, which aired last fall and familiarized viewers with the case.

In the words of O'Hara, that's "promotional sizzle," and that's what the networks want for their made-for-TV movies.

Ethical dilemma

But Bembenek is also a good example of one of the ethical problems with true-crime movies: networks buying rights from criminals.

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