On September 23, 1961, NBC introduced its new series, "Saturday Night at the Movies," featuring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable in "How to Marry a Millionaire." This broadcast was an astounding success and pointed to Hollywood's growing inclination to release its post-1948 movies to television. Seven more series representing all three networks and every night of the week appeared over the next five years. The culmination of this trend was an ABC Sunday telecast of "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in September 1966. "An estimated 60 million viewers in 25 million homes sat down to watch one movie" for which ABC had "paid Columbia Pictures $2,000,000." Even at the price, the American Broadcasting Network was understandably delighted, as the television viewing public clamored to consume big-budget, star-studded, color extravaganzas from Hollywood in the privacy of well over 95 percent of the homes in the United States.
The only drawbacks, of course, were that these feature pictures were still over four years old on the average; and more critically, Hollywood's supply was quickly being depleted by prime-time TV. Consequently, ABC's video stage was appropriately set for the successful nurturing of the American made-for-TV movie.
The precise birth date of the telefilm is arguable, although only a handful of contenders exist prior to 1961. Claims range from Ron Amateau's 60-minute Western, "The Bushwackers, " which appeared on CBS in 1951, to Disney's "Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier," which was broadcast as three separate segments during the 1954-55 debut season of "The Wonderful World of Disney." Also, it was not uncommon during the late 1950s for TV's dramatic anthologies to present some of their teleplays on either film or videotape. Three shows especially, "Desilu Playhouse," "Kraft Theatre," and "The Bob Hope Show," filmed a number of their one-hour offerings, while a few of these presentations were even expanded into a second hour airing the following week as a finale of a two-parter. Still, these haphazard examples have really more to do with trivia than historical precedent, as the man primarily responsible for pioneering the formal properties of the telefeature is Jennings Lang, a New York lawyer who became programming chief for MCA's Revue in the late 1950s.
Lang had been promoting a longer form beyond the television series as early as 1957. "He began his experiments with anthology shows like 'The Alfred Hitchcock Hour' and 'The Chrysler Theater,' in the one-hour format, and he had a big hand in the first 90-minute regularly scheduled series, 'The Virginian,' which premiered on NBC in 1962. Nineteen sixty-two was also the year that the powerful talent agency, the Music Corporation of America (MCA), purchased Universal Pictures. As a result, this operation absorbed and merged with Revue, which, in turn, considerably extended the operational purview of Jennings Lang and his subsequent television ventures. Lang, now of Universal Television, foresaw "the era of the TV epic, when an entire evening [would] be given over to a single spectacular, made for the occasion." In fact, the term "event programming" had not even been coined yet, although each network would be exploring this strategic avenue in their own separate ways by 1966.
As mentioned earlier, the fall of 1966 was when ABC first decided to begin telecasting a number of Hollywood "blockbuster" films, including "The Bridgeon the River Kwai" on the River Kwai" and later "The Robe." CBS, on the other hand, strove for prestige programming to counterbalance its lineup of popular, though pedestrian situation comedies, such as "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Green Acres," "Petticoat Junction," the "Andy Griffith Show," and "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." These specials were composed mostly of important American plays, like "Death of a Salesman" and "The Glass Menagerie," which actually pulled moderate, though respectable ratings for a time. Most important, however, Lang was first able to interest NBC in financially promoting the made-for-TV form in the spring of 1964. By 1966, it was apparent to both Universal TV and NBC that they had gambled themselves into developing a television genre of enormous potential, as economic dividends were realized almost immediately from this feature-length hybrid. In contrast, however, much of the aesthetic and socio-cultural possibilities inherent in the telefilm would lie dormant for another five years.
NBC and MCA, Inc., inaugurated 1964 by creating "Project 120," a never fully actualized weekly film anthology whose very name echoed the live dramatic series of the 1950s. NBC allotted $250,000 for the first telefeature, as MCAUniversal hired Hollywood journeyman Don Siegel to direct "'Johnny North,' an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story, 'The Killers,' starring John Cassavetes, Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan in his last role. The movie that resulted eventually cost over $900,000 and was deemed by the network "too spicy, expensive, and violent for TV screens." Clearly, it was evident to both NBC and MCA from the outset that the budgetary constraints and the dictates of content would be different for the telefilm from what was previously expected for the usual theatrical picture. As a result, "Johnny North" was retitled "The Killers," and the film was subsequently released to movie theaters nationwide. Mort Werner, NBC-TV vice president in charge of programming at the time, reflected upon this experience: "We've learned to control the budget. Two new 'movies' will get started soon, and the series probably will show up on television in 1965."
Actually, the very first made-for-TV movie, "See How They Run," premiered on October 17, 1964, a few months sooner than expected. This Universal production is a mediocre crime melodrama that was quickly followed six weeks later by the broadcast of Don Siegel's next excursion into the telefilm genre, "The Hanged Man." Like "The Killers" before it, Siegel's second assignment for NBC-MCA is another remake of a classic film noir, "Ride the Pink Horse." Without a doubt, this movie along with the only telefeature to appear during the 1965-66 season, a Western pilot for Dale Robertson entitled, "Scalplock," both point to the fact that the early TV movie was more derivative of Hollywood for source material than any other dramatic avenue. In fact, the telefilm had not yet produced its own crop of production talent. In the late 1960s, this genre harkened most to Hollywood's least "respectable" genres for story ideas and themes: the Western, the melodrama, the spy thriller, and the horror/supernatural tale. Therefore, in retrospect, it is obviously no surprise that the trade publications and movie critics alike were immediately inclined to christen this new form--the rebirth of Hollywood's B-movie; indeed, it would take the made-for-TV film genre a dozen more years to outgrow this benign, though ultimately disparaging label.