The television landscape has changed so much in the past 30 years. Ratings across the board have fallen, cable subscribers are disappearing in droves, and live programming has become more valuable than ever. These changes are thanks to the evolution of the internet and the advent of streaming services. Thanks to these two factors, one aspect of television that almost disappeared is the made-for-TV movie — a cultural staple from the 1960s to the 2000s.
The First Made-for-TV movie
Made-for-TV movies started in 1961 with the premiere of NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. This series was dedicated to showing major films on TV for the first time. NBC was the winning network and negotiated with movie studios to premiere their films exclusively on their network. The first made-for-TV movie to air on NBC was How to Marry a Millionaire on September 23, 1961. As time went on, viewers wanted more films on TV.
This led to NBC creating their own original movies to broadcast. The first was supposed to be a remake of The Killers, a film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 short story. The film was also Ronald Regan’s last role before he became president. However, it was considered too violent for TV, so it was released in theaters instead. NBC ended up creating See How They Run, the first made-for-TV movie, which premiered on October 7, 1964.
The premiere of See How They Run led to the creation of dozens of other made-for-tv movies from NBC and other television networks. In 1968, a made-for-tv movie aired every night of the week on channels such as ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. These movies were successful due to airing in conjunction with Sweeps Week. Sweeps week used to be a time when viewers would report their exact viewing habits to Nielsen, a firm known for measuring TV ratings, for one week. This caused networks to air made-for-TV movies in order to have the most viewers possible during Sweeps week.
For example, ABC had record-breaking viewers for their movies. Battlestar Galactica: Saga of a Star World premiered on September 17, 1978, with over 60 million viewers. Just a few years later in 1983, ABC aired The Day After and had the largest viewership ever for a made-for-tv movie with approximately 100 million people tuning in that evening.
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The Premiere of The Disney Channel
That same year, a new competitor joined the made-for-TV in the form of The Disney Channel. The channel just debuted that year as a premium channel, similar to HBO, and needed to beef up its content offering because it positioned itself as the home for family programming. Their first made-for-tv movie, also known as Disney Channel Premiere Film, was Tiger Town, a sports drama that won the CableACE Award for Best Drama in 1984. Tiger Town’s success led to the creation of multiple Disney Channel Premiere Films.
Following the debut of Tiger Town, The Disney Channel premiered at least 2 to 3 of these films every year. The last Disney Channel Premiere Film to air was Northern Lights on August 23, 1997. Around this time, the network went through a rebranding. It was now called Disney Channel with “The” removed from the name, and Disney Channel Premiere Films were now called Disney Channel Original Movies, also known as DCOMs.
The first DCOM was Under Wraps, which aired on October 25, 1997. DCOMs are considered an iconic piece of children’s programming from the late ’90s to the early 2000s. More were released each year compared to the Disney Channel Premiere Films. Films such as Smart House, Cadet Kelly, Cheetah Girls and High School Musical left their mark on the network. The first two High School Musical films were so successful that the third one was released in theaters in October 2008 — a year after the second — and made $252.9 million with a budget of $11 million. Two years later, in 2010, it aired on Disney Channel for the first time, drawing an audience of 4 million viewers. DCOMs are still released each year, making Disney Channel one of the few remaining networks producing made-for-TV movies.
What Networks Still Air Made-for-TV movies?
Other networks still producing these movies include Lifetime, Hallmark, SyFy and HBO. There are several reasons for this, the biggest being the overall loss of television viewers to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Disney Plus. Streaming is where audiences have moved to. For example, Disney Channel aired 8 DCOMs between 2019 and 2022. Disney Plus, which launched in 2019, has 25 — with the most recent, Zombies 3, premiering on the streaming service before it aired on Disney Channel.
Limited TV Series
It doesn’t make sense for networks to put money into these made-for-TV movies when they have fewer viewers than ever. As a result, limited series/miniseries replaced them. Shows like The People vs. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story, Sharp Objects and Mare of Easttown have become favorites of major networks and award shows.
Made-for-TV movies are a reminder of a time where TV was king and streaming services weren’t in a position to dominate. They barely exist today, but their impact can still be seen across the television landscape as we watch our favorite miniseries.
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