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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

The broadcast networks are still making movies, but most films for the coming season appear to be starring younger, less accomplished actresses -- such as Daphne Zuniga ("Melrose Place") and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen ("Beverly Hills, 90210") -- in variations on the young-woman-in-jeopardy or young-woman-in-search-of-a-relationship formulas.

Why the shift to cable? Mostly money, according to several performers and producers; although artistic expression also plays a role.

Wasserstein, who had adapted one of her earlier plays for television on PBS, said her first impulse was to do "Heidi" on public television.

"But when we went to them, they [PBS] said that they don't have any money," she said. "And I'm not talking about major money. I'm the queen of the four-figure deal."

ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox still have money. But, for the most part, they don't have the kind of better-educated, upscale audience that's interested in serious, adult drama.

"In the last 10 years or so, the networks have lost about one-third of their audience. That's the audience that has come to cable looking for quality and something more interesting," says Allen Sabinson, executive vice president for original programming at TNT. "We have to keep making higher and higher quality original programs to hold them."

Sabinson, chief of movies and miniseries at ABC before coming to TNT three years ago, acknowledged that the networks still make a few quality movies a year -- such as "The Piano Lesson" on CBS, "Serving in Silence" on NBC, and "Don't Drink the Water" on ABC last season. But, among the 35 to 50 made-for-TV movies per network per season, such productions regularly finish in the bottom third of the ratings, according to figures from A. C. Nielsen.

Network movies aren't 'real'

"The result is that, in the main, the networks are no longer even making real movies," says Sabinson. "What they call movies on Sunday nights is more like an anthology series aimed at women 18 to 49 years of age. The stories are all about marital disputes or women in jeopardy, and they all feature actresses from television, like Judith Light. It's only about demographics and cost effectiveness."

Because it works on a different calculus, cable can make more expensive films than the networks and still be cost-effective. Networks only rent the right to air made-for-TV movies from the production companies that make the films, whereas an entity such as TNT owns its films and can show them on other Turner outlets, such as cable channel TBS, TNT Asia, TNT Europe or TNT Central America.

Even more money can be made in home video sales. For example, TNT has sold more than a million videocassettes of "Gettysburg," according to Sabinson.

The other economic factor driving top talent to cable is the feature film industry's increasing reliance on a few huge films -- such as "Batman Forever" -- at the expense of smaller films dealing with social issues.

Right for cable

"You know, the movie business is a very complicated one right now, with feature films expected to make $50 million in one weekend," said Jamie Lee Curtis, explaining why she thought "Heidi" was right for cable. "And a story about this kind of subtlety of human feeling, I think, would have a hard time making its mark in the feature film market," she added.

Norman Jewison ("A Soldier's Story") and Peter Bogdanovich ("The Last Picture Show"), feature-film directors who are working on projects for Showtime, said it was artistic freedom that brought them to cable.

"Cable television simply offers the kind of freedom that directors would not get at a network or a major studio," Jewison said.

"It's unusual these days to have a chance to do anything without an awful lot of people sticking their nose into it," added Bogdanovich.

Wasserstein said that except for casting the lead in "Heidi," she had near-total control from TNT. "I can't imagine how a network would have handled some of the relationships and language that I was free to use," she said.

The willingness to take risks is regularly cited by writers and producers, especially those whose projects deal with aspects of gender, race and culture that the networks and feature film studios have been reluctant to explore.

Robert Williams, the co-executive producer of "Tuskegee Airmen," and one of the original pilots, said he had been trying for 50 years to get the film made.

"That's the point," said Fishburne. "I think it's kind of silly to try and speculate on whether Columbia or Universal or whoever might have or should have done this as a motion picture. The fact is that HBO put their money where their mouth was and made an important movie that's going to be seen in homes all across the nation. . . . That's the kind of thing that's happening in the cable film business today."

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