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Television Gets In a Family Way


Network TV will be bombarding viewers with a super-collider of movies this season about adoption, surrogate mothers, custody disputes, baby-snatching and baby-selling.

"The networks have burned out on finding strange and unusual ways that people can kill each other," says Judd Parkin, ABC's senior vice president for TV movies and miniseries. His network is first on the air Sunday with its "Whose Child Is This? The War for Baby Jessica," a drama based on the widely reported interstate custody dispute between Jessica's birth parents and the couple caring for her.

"At one time," Parkin continues, "we had the disease-of-the-week syndrome on TV, then true crime, and now we've gone back to realizing that virtually anything dealing with children is appealing to our audience."

And so Meredith Baxter, segueing from not one but two recent TV movies playing husband-murdering Betty Broderick, now stars in CBS' "For the Love of Aaron" as a woman who fights her ex-husband for custody of their son.

And so Patty Duke is playing not one but two grandmothers who seek custody of grandchildren. In NBC's "A Matter of Justice" in November, she'll fight for custody against her daughter-in-law; in CBS' "The Fight for Baby Jesse," Duke fights her daughter's wish to put one of her twins up for adoption.

NBC will air its own twin-custody movie, "Moment of Truth: A Child Too Many," on Oct. 11. In this true story, a surrogate mother discovers she's carrying twins, and when the client couple say they only wanted one baby, she seeks to keep both.

In CBS' "Broken Promises," Cheryl Ladd arranges to adopt a baby from a homeless couple, only to find the birth parents have a history of selling their babies to support themselves.

To be sure, among the 60-plus TV movies CBS and NBC will each air this year, and ABC's 24-27, many are violent and some even contain no children. But there is "a trend in what the networks buy," says "Broken Promises" producer Larry Thompson. "You go in and pitch 'Mother Teresa,' 'Broken Promises' and some serial murder case. The network says 'Mother Teresa' is too soft, and it's done too many serial murder stories lately, so let's do 'Broken Promises.' No question, next time you go in, you pitch three 'Broken Promises.' "

"Women are 60-65% of our audience," points out Steve Mills, producer of "Empty Cradle," a movie that ABC has scheduled for Oct. 3 in which Kate Jackson stars as a nurse who steals a newborn baby from the hospital and pretends it's hers. "Women viewers are always interested in women's problems. At one time it was young women in trouble, and Valerie Bertinelli and Melissa Gilbert played all the parts. Now custody is having its 15 minutes of fame and the ex-'Charlie's Angels' are the stars."

"Baby Jessica" producer Bernard Sofronski thinks his movie and the others reflect a change in the nation's view of what makes a family.

"Cases like Baby Jessica catch the imagination of the public, because we're more aware of children's rights now," Sofronski says. "The system is based solely on the biological parents' rights, and that's got to change. We're realizing that we have to ask: Where are the care and love and guidance coming from?"

From the state? Producer Frank Konigsberg's "Yarn Princess," to air on ABC next spring, stars Jean Smart as a borderline retarded mother who fights the state to prove she can be a good mother. Konigsberg attributes the spate of TV movies on such subjects to "widespread public interest in child-rearing questions. Due to economic factors, advances in biological technology and the high pressure of modern life, the concept of 'family' now ranges from sacrosanct to extremely porous."

Additional such projects include ABC's "Shameful Secrets" on Oct. 17, with Joanna Kerns playing a mother whose fight for custody of her children involves combatting laws that seem to favor her abusive husband; CBS' "Scattered Dreams: The Kitty Messenger Story," due in December, with Tyne Daly portraying a mother who emerges from prison on a trumped-up charge and fights to get her children out of foster homes; and CBS' "Thicker Than Blood" this winter, in which Peter Strauss seeks custody of his live-in girlfriend's child even after he discovers he wasn't the biological father.

Next spring will see Deidre Hall playing herself in an NBC dramatization of her efforts to obtain a baby through a surrogate mother. Also next spring, ABC will air "A Place for Annie," starring Sissy Spacek as a nurse who takes an AIDS-afflicted mother and her HIV-positive baby into her home.

Konigsberg and some other producers worry that TV will soon overwork the family vein. "That's what TV does," Konigsberg says gloomily. "It feels the audience responding to a subject and then does it to exhaustion."

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