Origins and history
Though not exactly labeled as such, there were early precedents for "television movies", such as Talk Faster, Mister, which aired on WABD (now WNYW) in New York City on December 18, 1944, and was produced by RKO Pictures, or the 1957 The Pied Piper of Hamelin, based on the poem by Robert Browning, and starring Van Johnson, one of the first filmed "family musicals" made directly for television. That film was made in Technicolor, a first for television, which ordinarily used color processes originated by specific networks (most "family musicals" of the time, such as Peter Pan, were not filmed but broadcast live and preserved on kinescope, a recording of a television program made by filming the picture from a video monitor – and the only (relatively inexpensive) method of recording a television program until the invention of videotape).
Television films had a rough start when the idea was first presented in the 1950s to major networks. The production for the films was an unstable business with certain challenges facing early participants. Many television networks were hostile toward film programming, fearing that it would loosen the network's arrangements with and affiliates by encouraging station managers to make independent deals with advertisers and film producers.
By contrast, beginning in the 1950s episodes of American television series would be placed together and released as feature films in overseas cinemas.
Television networks were in control of the most valuable prime time slots available for programming, so syndicators of independent television films had to settle for fewer television markets and less desirable time periods. This meant much smaller advertising revenues and license fees compared with network-supplied programming.
The term "made-for-TV movie" was coined in the United States in the early 1960s as an incentive for movie audiences to stay home and watch what was promoted as the equivalent of a first-run theatrical film. Beginning in 1961 with NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, a prime time network showing of a television premiere of a major theatrical film release, the other networks soon copied the format, with each of the networks having several [Day of the Week] Night At The Movies showcases which led to a shortage of movie studio product. The first of these made-for-TV movies is generally acknowledged to be See How They Run, which debuted on NBC on October 7, 1964. A previous film, The Killers, starring Lee Marvin and Ronald Reagan, was filmed as a TV-movie, although NBC decided it was too violent for television and it was released theatrically instead.
The second film to be considered a television movie, Don Siegel's The Hanged Man, was broadcast by NBC on November 18, 1964.
These features originally filled a 90-minute programming time slot (including commercials), later expanded to two hours, and were usually broadcast as a weekly anthology television series (for example, the ABC Movie of the Week). Many early television movies featured major stars, and some were accorded higher budgets than standard television series of the same length, including the major dramatic anthology programs which they came to replace.
In 1996, 264 made-for-TV movies were made by the five largest American television networks at the time (CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, and the WB), averaging a 7.5 rating. By 2000, however, only 146 TV movies were made by those five networks, averaging a 5.4 rating. On the other hand, the number of made-for-cable movies made annually in the U.S. doubled between 1990 and 2000.