Remembering ‘The ABC Movie of the Week,’ From ‘Brian’s Song’ to ‘The Night Stalker’ and Beyond

From 1969 to 1975, the imagination of television viewers was captured by The ABC Movie of the Week, a series of Classic TV films that included many critically-acclaimed titles (Brian’s Song being one that immediately springs to mind), a number of which still enjoy strong cult followings and others that were spun-off into weekly television shows — like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Night Stalker, Kung Fu and Starsky and Hutch.

Those shows, and several others, were just unexpected fringe benefits of what had been designed as an antidote to the high cost of licensing feature films from the Hollywood Studios. While theatrical movies usually did well in terms of ratings, they were so expensive to air. And although made for TV movies was not a new concept — NBC had been enjoying some success in the mid-to-late ’60s airing five or six a season — this was the first dedicated attempt to create original content in this format on a regular basis.

“ABC was the third place network, really a struggling network, making them more likely to take chances. So they decided they were going to invest a massive amount of money at the time, which was a million dollars to produce 25 or 26 films per year,” explains Michael McKenna, author of The ABC Movie of the Week: Big Movies for the Small Screen. “All of a sudden, they began to have a tremendous success. Some of the movies are ending up in the Top 10, and the series itself from 1970-71 is the No. 6 show on television. The following year it’s No. 5, with some of the films finishing in first or second place. It isn’t long before TV movies become a consistent moneymaker and ratings grabber, and it starts to become a genre for all the networks, some sooner than later. By the time we get to, let’s say, the late ’70s, the networks are producing 200 or 300 TV movies a year, and some of them are just not TV hits, but cultural and artistic endeavors like Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, and the basic idea of the made for TV movie is born out of the Movie of the Week.”

Please scroll down for more from Michael McKenna about The ABC Movie of the Week

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