There is an often stated misconception that the American made-for-TV movie is today's "B" picture. The implication, of course, is that the telefeature is an inferior product modeled on the Hollywood paradigm. In fact, this supposition is an oversimplication of the generic origin and nature of the TV movie. Primarily, this film genre is derivative of both the traditional Hollywood feature movie and the live dramatic TV anthologies of the 1950s, although other secondary progenitors are certainly traceable in the aesthetics, technology, economics, and culture of American society during the past century. All the same, the made-for-TV movie fits comfortably into the developing narrative tradition that is at present inextricably linked to commerce and industry in the United States.
Telefilms now cost millions of dollars to make and are channeled throughout the world by a number of old and new distribution technologies. Very few TV movies garner the astronomical income of a Hollywood blockbuster; still, the substantial majority of "vidpics" return a profit in contrast to only 20 to 25 percent of their more prestigious counterparts. In addition, a successful madefor-TV movie can attract approximately 40 to over 70 million viewers at any one time, while only 20 million people attend all the theatrical movies in America in any given week. Obviously, the commercial influence of the telefilm is immense, as this type of picture has been a consistently productive programming source for over twenty years at the three networks. Paradoxically, however, the aesthetic and socio-cultural significance of this genre is usually dismissed. The American telefeature is underrrated; and for the most part, it still labors under a critical reputation as Hollywood's "stepchild" or second-class citizen. Nevertheless, the made-for TV movie, albeit young, is a rich and varied genre, encompassing its own unique formal, stylistic, and topical strategies on which the process of definition and evaluation can continue to develop.
As with any genre, determining the parameters of the telefilm remains its foremost challenge. Since 1964, well over 1,500 examples have appeared on network television in the United States, varying in length from 74-minute offerings fitting into 90-minute time slots to a 26.5-hour mini-series. Overall, this aggregation can be divided into three manageable categories: the telefeature, the docudrama, and the mini-series. In addition, all three of these subgenres can be either original creations or story adaptations from a previous source. First, the telefeature refers to a fictional narrative produced for TV that is a discrete entity occupying at least 90 "commercial" minutes but not exceeding one evening of programming. Next, the docudrama is a story film designed to recreate actual persons, places, and events. Moreover, this form is purported to blend essential aspects of both the fictional and the documentary film modes, although the narrative form has usually dominated in its subsequent execution on American television to date. Thirdly, the mini-series is an extended telefeature or docudrama that is broadcast in multiple segments over two or more nights. As a final note, these three short explanations are meant to be working definitions, and each will be elaborated on in more detail.
From a critical standpoint, movies made-for-television have historically struggled to adapt and eventually merge their roots in the classical cinematic style of Hollywood with the inherent contingencies of the television medium. In the beginning, the grammar and story types of the theatrical feature took precedence, while the basic method of storytelling and characterization indigenous to TV drama eventually surfaced as well to better balance the aesthetic form that is today characteristic of the television movie. What resulted is a media hybrid with a variation of its own rules governing technique and plot structure, an audiovisual dialect, a star system, and particular thematic emphases and concerns. In other words, the usual telefilm is a "high-concept" picture, that borrows from the intrinsic topicality of the TV medium itself. Likewise, this concept can be a controversial theme, a historical recreation, or a spin-off from an already popular book, play, theatrical feature, or cultural trend. The important point here is that there is a previously established familiarity between the American viewing public and the subject matter at hand. Additionally, the TV movie's inherent aesthetic strategy is to provide a personal dramatization of this theme or topical issue, while always remaining within the bounds of "good taste" and network proprieties. In this way, the feature-length film form is filtered through the domesticity, "living-room" intimacy, and social relevancy of the television environment. In turn, this union suggests a new and evolving generic type, mixed in origin, but essentially unique as the ultimate offspring arising out of the respective traditions of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s and the golden age of TV drama during the 1950s.