If you want to know why network television is in such deep trouble these days, check out the programming at 9 tonight.
CBS offers Virginia Madsen and JoBeth Williams in "Victim of Love" (WBAL-TV, Channel 11). NBC has Loni Anderson in "White Hot: the Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd" (WMAR-TV, Channel 2). ABC serves up Richard Chamberlain in a remake of "Night of the Hunter" (WJZ-TV, Channel 13). It is classic, blockbuster counterprogramming on this second weekend of the spring sweeps ratings period.
The problem is that the television landscape has changed so dramatically in the last decade that the classic of 1980 is today out of date: What used to be profitable, sure-draw entertainment is now too costly and less than compelling -- compared to the competition.
In February 1978, when the three broadcast networks went head to head with the first broadcast of "Gone With the Wind," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and a made-for-TV movie about Elvis Presley, they split three ways an audience that consisted of more than 90percent of all television sets turned on that Sunday. It was TV's first triple-million-dollar counterprogramming showdown. And, even though everyone shelled out big bucks, there was enough audience -- and, consequently, advertising -- for everyone to make it back and then some.
Tonight, the three films will be fighting over a total audience of between 50 and 60 percent of TV sets in use. If that audience is split three ways, all three broadcast networks will lose money.
The difference? A handful of channels in 1979 became a smorgasbord of 40 or 50 channels during the 1980s with the phenomenal growth of cable and independent stations.
Can't the networks figure this out?
They know it's happening -- been happening for years now -- though they've been reluctant to admit how bad things have gotten for them.
"The days of such [counter]programming are over," Robert Iger, the president of ABC Entertainment, told TV critics earlier this year. He said head-to-head "kamikaze programming" no longer makes financial sense.
If we can believe him, the movies and miniseries this May are the last gasp of such programming, the end of a decade of "sweeps" excess. The networks simply cannot afford it any more, executives at all three networks say.
But network executives should be judged by what they do and not what they say. And what they are doing tonight is giving us more of the same-old, same-old, years after it was viable and months after they said it was history.
This is a time of great confusion at the networks. And tonight's films reflect that in content, too.
No matter which you watch, note the treatment of sex, for example. Titillation and sexual content has always been a big part of sweeps offerings. But the networks, which see themselves as mainstream, aren't sure how far they can go in trying to compete with cable.
"Victim of Love" suffers most from this indecision. The film wants to be about sexual obsession and it features an actress, Virginia Madsen, who made the screen smoke inHBO's "Long Gone." But this is network, not cable, and CBS is afraid to portray the objects of sexual obsession. The bedroom scenes are shot from the neck up. Cleavage is limited.
Compare this with the frank and stunning depictions of sex in Showtime's "Paris Trout," with Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey, and you'll have a sense of why adults are watching cable.
Here's a look at tonight's three films:
AH'Victim of Love'
Sexual problems aside, "Victim of Love" is also a victim of too little plot and too much plodding along. It almost dies under the weight of its three stars: Madsen, Williams and Pierce Brosnan, who have little to do and two hours not to do it in. A lot of the things that are often wrong with network movies are wrong with this clunker.
It is, for example, a knockoff of a box-office hit. Actually, severalAmong those that come to mind are "Suspicion," "North by Northwest" and "Fatal Attraction." There's a bit of each in this story about English professor Paul Tomlinson (Brosnan) who's still grieving for his deceased first wife when he meets psychologist Tess Palmer (Williams) at a party.
Tomlinson and Palmer are immediately attracted to each other; there's a great heat between them. We know this because we see other people on the dance floor stop to watch them. See what I mean about problems in communicating the concept of sexual attraction?
Palmer, meanwhile, is treating a patient (Madsen) who can't get the man she loves to commit to her, because he's still in love with his dead wife. Guess who the man is?
It gives nothing away to say that Palmer is confronted with two realities before long. Her patient says that she is having a relationship with Tomlinson, who, meanwhile, is telling Palmer he is true to her.
Whom should she believe? This goes on for two hours, about 90 minutes too long.
The film has no identity of its own. It has no feel of even being a complete thought. It seems to have been made so the network could have lots of little clips of couples em
bracing to run as previews. This is the made-for-TV movie as promotional tease.
'White Hot:The Mysterious Death of Thelma Todd'
For a story that has Hollywood, drugs, organized crime and mysterious death in it, "White Hot" is one big snooze.
Based on the non-fiction book "Hot Toddy," it stars Loni Anderson as the real-life comedienne Thelma Todd, who died mysteriously in 1935.
The film follows a Los Angeles assistant district attorney's investigation into the death, which was ruled a suicide. But the investigator (Scott Paulin) doesn't think so: There were bruises on her neck and she was seen alive after the time of death cited by the medical examiner.
Viewers will see lots of Anderson in slinky, body-hugging gowns and lots of the DA talking to folks. The story is told mainly in flashback, but there's not much mystery here and very little suspense.
The biggest mystery is why the filmmakers decided to do thi book. There's nothing "white hot" about Anderson's Todd. They've taken all the sizzle out of her. Instead of Thelma Todd's story, it could have been Thelma Ritter's.
'Night of the Hunter'
Then there is "Night of the Hunter," with a Richard Chamberlain who will make you forget his good Dr. Daniel Kulani in the dreadful "Island Son." Chamberlain's work tonight may even make you forget his Dr. Kildare, which made him a star. People have always said Chamberlain can act. He finally proves it tonight.
He's nobody's good guy in this remake of the 1955 classic. Chamberlain's got the Robert Mitchum part of Preacher Powell, playing a convict with one of the most famous tatoos in movie history: the letters H-A-T-E on the fingers of his left hand and L-O-V-E on the fingers of the right.
He's a self-anointed preacher just released from prison who happened to hear, while in the prison infirmary, about $50,000 a bank robber hid just before being captured. Preacher also just happened to have strangled
the robber while trying to elicit the money's whereabouts. When prison officials rush in as he chokes the man, Preacher claims he's administering CPR. It's the filmmakers' way of announcing that we are in the company of one very conscienceless dude.
On his release from prison, Preacher Powell goes to see the unsuspecting widow of the robber, played wonderfully by Diana Scarwid. She has two children, and the older one, a boy, instinctively rejects the phony Preacher, while the town embraces him and his lies.
The rest of the film involves Preacher ingratiating himself into the fatherless family and trying to figure out where the money is. We know he'll stop at nothing. He's got wires crossed somewhere; God, sin, sex and money are all twisted up inside his head.
Chamberlain is authentically scary, thanks in part to an absolutely first-rate makeup job, which makes his eyes look more like a cat's than a man's. He uses those eyes and some of that acting skill he learned on the London stage to create a chilling portrait of evil. He also seems to relish the role. It's as if after decades of playing heroes and saints on American television, he can let loose.
"Night of the Hunter" is not perfect. It drags a little in the middle. And the ending, which requires expert stunts and photography for impact, will not leave viewers breathless. Stunts and action are what movies do well; television no longer has the budget for them. You can see the seams in these stunts.
But the first half-hour of "Night of the Hunter" -- with robbery, murder and our first look at Chamberlain's twisted Preacher -- is the kind of moviemaking that can make a Sunday night of network television still feel like a big event.