TV Movies Ripped From Headlines Are on the Outs

In a New York Times article yesterday, the paper questioned whether or not headlines make good TV. Programs based on real events, like CBS' evening movie about the Scott Peterson trial, are increasingly losing viewers. Some would argue that not only is viewership poor for these special shows, but the content usually is lacking because of their quick turnaround.

NBC executives may have been reading this story - or the writing on the wall at least. Yesterday, it decided to abandon its long-planned, eight-hour miniseries, "9/11." That story suggested the expensive project was being abandoned, in part, because ABC was also planning a similar project.

But that couldn't be the complete reason. NBC has known about the ABC series for months; this isn't new. Through the years, competition between networks to cover certain news events has been fierce.

Broadcasters have been doing their own versions of Michael Jackson stories or other attention-grabbing headlines for years. Maybe now comes the creative realization and financial limit factors. In other words: "What's the upside?"



Obviously not much.

CBS' movie on the Scott Peterson murder trial, "Amber Frey: Witness for the Prosecution," earned 7.5 million viewers. But this was a far cry from ABC's take in March of the novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," which pulled in more than three times that many viewers.

Perhaps if networks insist on making these, they should take HBO's approach from its "Curb Your Enthusiasm" series: Go improv. That's right, no script. Just two hours of filming actors from an in-studio sofa doing charades of the O.J. Simpson trial, or maybe a silent version of Martha Stewarts' problems, complete with hard-charging 1920s-style piano accompaniment.

Viewers have spoken. Quickly produced series riffing off of headlines is no longer a prescription for TV programming health.

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