One of the more surprising tales that emerged from the 1997-98 TV season was the success of CBS's Sunday night movie lineup, which finished as the No. 9-rated prime-time TV series just behind the network's "60 Minutes."
The Sunday movies averaged a 13.3 rating last season (13.3 percent of TV households) and pulled in $62.7 million in advertising revenues. So far this season, the first two films "Marriage Fool," starring Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett, and "Forever Love," starring Reba McEntire, are ahead of last year's average at 14.0 and 15.1 respectively.
More importantly, the Sunday night movie is helping the Eye Network move ahead of NBC in the household race for total viewership in the early days of the new TV season. After the first week, CBS had average ratings for the week of 10.2, with NBC trailing at 9.9 and ABC at 8.6.
Luck isn't a part of this equation, CBS executives insist.
In picking subject matter for its made-for-TV films, CBS is carefully selecting story lines that are compatible with the movie night's lead-in, "Touched by an Angel."
"We figured out thematically the type of movies that have heart and adult relationships," said Sunta Izzicupo, CBS vice president for movies for television. "They are wildly different stories, but are all emotionally accessible and deal with contemporary personal issues."
Gone from this lineup are the so-called "ripped from the headlines" tabloid themes and "disease of the week" films that had been populating network movie schedules. Viewers also won't be seeing a lineup of hip, young stars jumping from such shows as The WB's "Dawson's Creek" and Fox's "Melrose Place" to make a CBS movie.
"We've done it and it doesn't work for CBS," Izzicupo said. "It's not our core audience."
CBS's casting tries to entice a cross section of viewers, like the four actresses in the upcoming family drama, "About Sarah," which stars Kellie Martin, who skews young, Mary Steenburgen, who appeals to a mature audience, and Marion Ross and Diane Baker, who appeal to an even older demographic.
"Each one has a character arc and we have good demographics," Izzicupo said.
The CBS executive said it is unfair to compare her network's films to HBO movies.
"We shouldn't be in the same business," she said. "They are sexy and not quite television, somewhere between a feature and a TV movie, and they have higher budgets, sometimes triple ours."
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