3 networks plan to leave sleazy-movie bog to Fox

July 29, 1994|By Bill Carter | Bill Carter,The New York Times

The television-movie mill is already geared up to produce the first docudrama based on the O. J. Simpson case. Fox hopes to have the film on the air by summer's end.

That's no surprise. What is more surprising is that only one such made-for-television movie is planned. ABC, CBS and NBC have so far refused what executives here in Los Angeles described as ceaseless pitches from producers for other versions of the Simpson case.

Could this mean that the networks' love affair with lurid, violent, ripped-from-the-tabloids television movies has cooled? Definitely so, says one network: ABC has declared itself out of the business of what Ted Harbert, the president of ABC Entertainment, described as "families killing families" movies.

And CBS executives said they were backing away as well, cutting back their true-crime movies to only about five of the network's 40 or so movies for the coming season.

NBC, although a little more reluctant to walk away from such movies, which often score heavily in the ratings, has nonetheless told producers it wants fewer of them.

That leaves only Fox. And as witnessed by its eagerness to dive headlong into the Simpson swamp -- even before Mr. Simpson, the football star, actor and broadcaster, has been tried in the killings of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald L. Goldman -- Fox appears ready to take up the mantle of leader in tabloid-television film-making.

"Just look at what Fox has lined up," a senior programming executive at a competing network said.

In addition to the Simpson film (for which actors have not yet been cast), Fox has announced its intention to commission movies portraying Madonna, Sonny and Cher, and Mia Farrow and the men in her life. Executives from other networks said Fox is also considering similar unauthorized biographies of Roseanne Arnold and Michael Jackson.

Meanwhile the three other networks are moving toward more "uplifting, feel-good movies," said Lindy DeKoven, the senior vice president of movies for NBC.

That's a seismic shift of sorts in the made-for-TV movie business. Just last year, the Amy Fisher story -- with illicit sex, assault with a deadly weapon and Long Island auto repair -- was deemed so exciting three networks offered separate renditions within weeks of one another.

Now, though, executives from ABC, CBS and NBC said in interviews here over the last two weeks that they felt a certain revulsion about doing a movie based on the still-churning details of the Simpson case.

Most demonstrative was ABC, in the person of Mr. Harbert, who denounced the idea of trying to make entertainment from a murder case before it is adjudicated.

"We've been in that business before and it just isn't worth the mess," Mr. Harbert said. "You have all the issues raised by all this publicity."

He added: "I mean, this man is not guilty yet. Then you bring in the whole other matter of: is it right, is it fair? And to us, the answer quickly becomes no."

Isn't right? Isn't fair? Since when does a network apply those standards to its television movies?

The answer is: very recently. In retrospect, numerous network executives consider the Amy Fisher movie glut to be one of their least shining moments, and other "based on a true story" movies dripping with sex and violence have put the television brass on the defensive.

And certainly a significant factor was the outcry in Washington led by Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., among others, about violent movies like ABC's "Murder in the Heartland," a re-creation of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate's killing spree 35 years ago, which was broadcast last year. That led to what the network movie executives consider a chilling development: an agreement between the networks and the legislators that particularly violent material would carry a warning to viewers.

ABC is portraying its new stance as something of a noble crusade. "We don't do some of the movies we could that we know would be strong in the ratings," Mr. Harbert said. "We tried a couple of very clear attempts to get out of the families-killing-families, violence-prone movies and to do things that are positively based. We didn't have great ratings success with those. That's OK. We're going to keep on trying until we get it right."

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