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The Big Picture : Why Networks are Buying Feature Films Once Again


The television networks have renewed their love affair with the movies after learning the ratings are better the second time around.

"A lot of pay cable is down. A lot of people are unplugging," says Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment. "People are looking to the networks to give them some of these big theatrical pictures on free, over-the-air television."

The most-watched theatrical movie last year was CBS' pre-Christmas showing of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." It was No. 5 for the week and helped CBS to a first-place victory.

In the last decade, the networks, forced by rising movie prices and the growth of cable, came to depend more on their own original movies. They cost less, could be tailored to network audiences and got high ratings.

"Generally, the first run of a movie of the week will outperform the first run of a theatrical," says Peter Tortorici, CBS executive vice president. "The value of a theatrical is in the subsequent runs, where there is less audience erosion than in the rerun of a movie of the week."

Theatrical films offer the networks a pre-sold product, while originals have the appeal of being new and fresh. Tortorici says he thinks it balances out. "I think knowing what you're going to get is one reason the level of viewer satisfaction on theatrical reruns is so high," he says.

Ted Harbert, ABC's executive vice president for prime time, expresses a similar view.

"When you buy a theatrical you basically have to look for something that will play as a repeat," Harbert says. "The network audience generally isn't watching it for the first time. You're really programming for movie lovers and offering them a movie they're willing to watch again and again."

ABC, CBS and NBC still rely heavily on "made-fors," but once again are giving theatrical films a big welcome.

"It seems they're making a comeback, but I'm not sure they ever really went away," Harbert says. "They did lose the luster of earlier days. You don't see them piling up 35 shares on Sunday night."

What's different today is that the networks are more selective in buying movies, and in some cases get them before cable, and are experimenting with new ways of presenting movies. NBC offered "Back To the Future III" twice in a week in November and will do the same with Arnold Schwarzenegger and "Kindergarten Cop" this week.

"It wasn't a surprise to us when we won the audience of adults 18-49 on Sunday night," Littlefield says of "Back To the Future III." "But when we played it on the following Friday we also won. That's what's significant. What's different is how we schedule and release films. It's a page from cable, absolutely."

Littlefield adds: "A lot of people who want to see a movie can't see it the first time. Clearly we have changed our thinking in regard to 'one-time only.' I think running it twice in a week has been very effective."

ABC's Harbert says: "I guess it's worth a shot. I'm for anything that works."

Nevertheless, he speculates NBC may have rerun the movie too soon. It got 23 percent of the audience on Sunday, but the Friday share dropped to 17 percent. He said a longer interlude between the showings might have produced a 20-plus share the second time.

"It got a better rating than the shows it replaced," he says. "What you have to look at is they've cut its future appeal. The next airing is going to be the third. What will be the number for that? If they'd waited a year they might have gotten almost as big an audience as the first time."

Another difference is that the networks no longer see cable as the biggest movie competitor.

"It's absolutely the VCR and the cassettes," Harbert says. NBC's Littlefield sees cooperation, too. "A big cassette sale, 10 million in the case of 'E.T.,' didn't affect its exposure on CBS," he says. "What we've also found is that when we run something it can fuel cassette sales afterward. It may be that it's a form of promotion for a product the audience wants to see."

Theatrical movies have been producing big audiences for the networks. "E.T." was the highest-rated last year, followed by "Back To the Future III." Other winners: NBC's "Ghost Dad," ABC's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and CBS' "Turner and Hooch" and "Beaches." Even such oldies as ABC's "Spartacus" and NBC's "The Sound of Music" got respectable numbers.

"We live and die by the box office, the same as the studios," Tortorici says. "Good movies that do well in the theaters generally do well on television. If it's a dry year, we have less product to acquire. The biggest question of what we buy is how much exploitation has it had, how much juice has been squeezed out of it by the time we get our turn."

"Kindergarten Cop" airs Sunday and Friday at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.


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