TV-moviemakers flock to cable for its artistic freedom, money A Serious Edge

July 19, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Los Angeles -- One of the hottest new couples in Hollywood these days is Wendy Wasserstein and Ted Turner.

No, Turner has not left wife Jane Fonda for the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Heidi Chronicles." The relationship is strictly business. Wasserstein is bringing a film version of her hit play, about a baby-boomer woman coming of age in a male-dominated culture, to Turner's TNT cable channel this fall.

But the marriage between such high-end pop culture and basic cable has the Hollywood community buzzing about a major change taking place in television for adults. Simply put, if you want to see smart made-for-television films this year, forget the networks and PBS. That's where they used to be. Where you'll find them now is on cable.

Specifically, you'll find them on TNT, HBO and Showtime, which are overtaking the networks and PBS in the presentation of films and miniseries. (This change mirrors the success that cable, specifically TBS and the Discovery Channel, has had in the past two years in documentaries and nonfiction television.)

"It's absolutely true that cable is now the place for thoughtful, serious films," Wasserstein said in an interview here this week. "When some of my friends heard about what I was doing with 'Heidi,' they said, 'Why are you doing it on cable?' And I said, 'Where else would I do it but cable?' "

Dozens of top writers, producers, directors and stars have echoed Wasserstein's remarks in press conferences and interviews here promoting their cable projects. While some of their words can surely be dismissed as hype, their very presence makes the case.

Ed Harris, Gary Sinise and Armand Assante -- stars from two of the summer's biggest theatrical films -- are here talking about their made-for-cable movies that will premiere in coming months. So too are Jamie Lee Curtis, Laurence Fishburne and Vanessa Redgrave, who will be seen in such coming cable films as:

* HBO's "The Tuskegee Airmen," which airs Aug. 26. It's about the first squadron of African-American combat pilots and their fight against racism as they train to battle the enemy in World War II. Stars include Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr., Allen Payne, Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Andre Braugher ("Homicide").

* HBO's "Truman," which stars Sinise ("Forrest Gump") as Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States. It's based on David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography and is directed by Frank Pierson, whose credits include "Citizen Cohn" and "King of the Gypsies" (directing), as well as "Cool Hand Luke" and "Dog Day Afternoon" (writing). Pierson won an Oscar for "Dog Day." "Truman" airs Sept. 6.

* TNT's "Broken Trust," a suspense-thriller about a judge caught up in a Justice Department sting operation, starring Tom Selleck and Marsha Mason. The screenwriters are the wife-and-husband team of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. It's from Jane Fonda's production company and airs Aug. 6.

* Showtime's "Hiroshima," which is a four-hour miniseries from director Roger Spottiswood ("And the Band Played On") chronicling what led to the decision to drop the atomic bomb. It airs Aug. 6, on the 50th anniversary of the bombing that helped bring World War II to an end.

* Showtime's "Down Came a Blackbird," which stars Redgrave, Laura Dern and Raul Julia in a story about victims of political torture. The film is directed by Jonathan Sanger (producer of "Elephant Man"). It was Julia's last performance before his death. Air date is Oct. 12.

* TNT's "The Heidi Chronicles," starring Curtis and Tom Hulce. Wasserstein wrote the screenplay. Paul Bogart ("Torch Song Trilogy" and "Broadway Bound") directs. It airs Oct. 15.

These are the kinds of films -- with the kinds of socially conscious themes and top-flight talent -- that used to make for big events on ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS.

Their presence on cable is not totally new. In 1993, HBO had four of the five made-for-TV movies nominated for Emmys, including such blockbusters as "Barbarians at the Gate" and "Stalin."

But that was HBO -- one of the most expensive premium cable channels. It was in a league of its own. Today that league includes HBO, Showtime, Disney and such basic cable channels as TNT, Lifetime, USA and the Family Channel. All are making films, with several dramatically increasing their output. Last year, for example, Showtime made 12 films. This year, it is going to make about 50, according to executive vice president Steven Hewitt.

Top-notch stars

Most striking in this cable-network shift is the contrast between the performers involved. Cable has found seasoned, top-notch actors for its movies. The networks are trotting out an endless parade of unknown twentysomething actors to promote fall sitcoms -- many of whom look like clones of NBC's "Friends."

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