SOME PEOPLE call movies "flicks" and television "the tube." Shame on them. The fact is, though, that the two have long gone together -- like the hippopotamus and the little birdie that rides around on its head. "There's nothing on often just means there aren't any good movies on.
Movies have been in the life's blood of networks since the inception of NBC's "Saturday Night at the Movies" in 1961, and they are even more corpuscular to local stations like, in Washington, Channel 5 (WTTG) and Channel 20 (WDCA), neither of them network affilates.
Millions are invested in packages of old movies -- they are almost always sold in groups -- for telecast here, but lately the quality of movies on TV seems to have slumped. One reason is the infiltration into movie packages of made-for-TV features which are more often than not inferior to real movies.
Station officials like to crow that movies on TV are better than ever. Most admit, however, thay they try to avoid buying made-for-TV films. "I buy as few as I possibly can," says Jim Reid, program director for Channel 20. With a station inventory estimated at between 2,200 and 3,000 titles, his station is the biggest movie purchaser in Washington TV.
There are exceptions to the dread of tube-flicks, too -- none more spectacular than "Roots." Channel 9 has bought not only the rights to show the 12-hour "Roots" in Washington but also the 14-hour "Roots II," which hasn't even aired on ABC yet. For each "Roots," the station paid a record, for this market, of at least $25,000 per hour , although program director Tim McDonald will not confirm the figure.
"That's competitive information," he says, "but it's in excess of that ($25,000), and cheap at the price. It is rare programming." He won't be able to show "Roots" until the fall of this year and "Roots II" until the fall of 1982. The high purchase price means that the CBS affiliate will put both Rootses into prime time, pre-empting whatever network shows get in the way.
Until the "Roots" buy, the record for a movie sale to local TV was probably held by Channel 7 (WJLA). It paid MCA-Universal $18,500 per title for a 32-picture package that includes "The Sting," "American Graffiti" and "House Calls," and such less imposing titles as "Rollercoaster," "Blue Collar" and "Paradise Alley," which is still in theatrical release. By contract, "The Sting" shall not air until 1985, but the market for old movies is so competitive that it was considered judicious to sign up now.
Besides, to hesitate was to lose; the MCA package was on the auction block for only half a day here before it went to the highest bidder.
Stations often have to take chaffees to get the Wheaties; movie packages are arranged so that less coveted titles -- especially made-for-TV films -- are mixed in with a few blockbusters. McDonald estimates that of the average movie package, 20 per cent is sure-fire, 40 per cent is so-so, "and the rest is trash." Yet for viewers it often seems the trash rate is higher; when you really want to curl up with a good old movie, you may be stuck with Don Knotts as "The Incredible Mr. Limpet."
At Channel 5, where movies are solid audience draws on Sunday afternoons, fewer golden oldies are shown now; instead there are more recent films, often exceedingly tedious. "Little by little we were seeing a downward trend in the ratings," says Stan Rudick, until this week the station's program director (he is moving to a Baltimore station). "So we started buying newer packages. We do not show classics on Sundays any more."
Among the recent movie buys he's made is a package that includes "The Longest Yard," "Lady Sings the Blues" and "Murder on the Orient Express," but don't look for these on Channel 5 before 1981 or 1982, depending on when the networks get through with them. Local stations buy mainly leftovers, but many films can sustain big audiences over repeated plays. When Channel 5's option ran out on a package of pre-1948 Warner Bros. classics, Channel 20 was right there to scoop it up.
It may look as though stations just throw movies onto the air without a thought. In fact, this is a matter of intense strategic deliberation. McDonald devised Channel 20's successful formula for Sunday movie scheduling when he was program director there, and it still stands.
As McDonald explains it, the station starts with a late-morning Tarzan movie to hook "kids and men," then follows with either a Humphrey Bogart or a Jerry Lewis title "so that you keep either the kids or the men and start to pick up women," in the demographic sense, that is. Then comes a picture aimed right at women -- "The Little Foxes" or "Magnificent Obsession" or an Elvis picture, McDonald says -- and then an "all-family" film, preferably in color.
McDonald says his idea of the perfect picture for this spot is "The Magnificent Seven."
Stars and titles that are sure-fire on the air vary from market to market. In Washington it was once thought that any time you trotted out John Wayne, Elvis Presley or Jerry Lewis, you were home free. Now Linda Desmarais, program manager for Channel 7, says this is changing. "We were playing the same five Jerry Lewis titles and the same five Elvis titles over and over and finally I thought, "The public wants a rest,'" she says. "It used to be that John Wayne was a sure thing, so I would play him during November, our most important ratings period, but now I feel his numbers are softening a bit."
So Desmarais has exiled Wayne to July -- "our worst month." Big movie titles with big movie stars are most likely to materialize when local stations are in a ratings sweep period, and the "November book" (the "book" is the Nielsen volume with the ratings in it) is the most important. February is the next sweep month, so Mr. Limpet will get a vacation.
What is the relationship between these ratings considerations and the convenience and pleasure of viewers? There is no relationship. This is business.
Once a station buys and schedules a movie, the film is hardly in a safe place. Channel 7 becomes Slaughterhouse 7 every weekday afternoon when it butchers and squeezes a 2-hour movie into a 90-minute afternoon time slot to provide a hefty audience lead-in to its local news show. These may be the unkindest cuts in Washington TV.
At Channel 5, another kind of fiend runs riot over films: the computer that operates the station. This mechanism is programmed in advance with each day's commercials, films and videotapes, and to say that it is a fallible device is like calling Billy Carter a social drinker. Movies are forever being ended before they end, actors are interrupted in mid-sentence for commercials, and pictures begin without audio or without video or without either.
The most recent malicious mischief wreaked by the computer was during the station's telecast of Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Morthwest" and in the middle of its most famous sequence, the crop-dusting scene, to boot. The computer had mis-timed this segment of the film, so that it kicked in a commercial one-minute early. The film continued to run, however, and viewers missed the climax, in which an airplane explodes into a tanker truck. At Channel 5, it's every movie for itself.
Channel 20 has little to crow about in this respect, either, although things have improved there since the earliest days of the station, when one night a Claude Rains picture called "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" was mysteriously over within 20 minutes. Technicians had shown the first reel followed by the last reel and left out everything in between. Strangely enough, the remains made near-perfect sense anyway.
A former film editor at the station recalls how he was once ordered to take 20 minutes out of Laurence Olivier's "Hamiet" to accommodate commercials and then, the next time the film was aired, was told to take out 35 minutes. He thought this was beyond all decency and, on appeal, got the air time for the film extended. When the station showed "Two Women" with Sophia Loren, it used the picture's violent rape scene in promos, but when the film itself was shown, station management decided the rape scene should be edited out.
That was back in the silly '60s, but only last year, Baltimore's Channel 2 promoted its showing of the Hitchcock classic "Psycho" with teasing peeks at the film's legendary shower muder. When the film was shown on the air, however, the shower murder was merely a rumor. A door opened and squat .
Technical woes plague Channel 20's movies. Sometimes a film will be improperly threaded through the projector, so that one hears a constant thump-thump on the soundtrack, or the musical score goes all wobbly. Yet Reid insists, "Our equipment is as shipshape as anyone's in the market and we try to polcie it."
Networks, also capable of mauling movies, do take more care in their presentation. They tend to get 35mm prints of films -- rather than the lesserquality 16mm ones sold to local stations -- and transfer them to videotape before telecast.CBS engineers are working now on preparation of "Gone with the Wind" for telecast Feb. 11 and 12. Last year, when NBC showed the film, engineers worked for a year with sophisticated color-correction equipment and produced a copy of "Gone with the Wind" that was actually superior to prints circulated in theaters.
Stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) have shelled out an exorbitant $600,000 for seven old MGM musicals to be aired starting next month. All the films -- "Singin' in the Rain," "The Band Wagon" -- have been in TV circulation for years, but the purchase may not be as wasteful as it appears, because a spokesman at producing station KOCE in Huntington Beach, Calif., says the films will be transferred to tape from brand new 35mm prints provided by MGM. They may look better than they ever have on TV.
And since this is public TV, they will be shown uncut and without interruption, right? "Oh yes, oh yes, of course" said the spokesman. Later, however, he had to ammend this burst of generosity. "Well, there may be a break or two for station identification or for pledge collecting at some stations," he said. It only goes to prove again, you give television a mile and you may end up with an inch.