TV movies
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How TV movies saved my life (and the world)

by David Craig

As described in Part 1 — “How TV movies saved my life” — I have spent the past three decades making TV movies in hopes of educating and, perhaps, enlightening audiences. Perhaps it may come as no surprise then that I’ve also developed a second career as an educator. I moonlight as a college professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. My courses focus on the nature of media industries and the power of storytelling, all wrapped in a mix of entertaining lectures and guest speakers. After all, if a career in TV has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t educate your audience if they aren’t first paying attention.

Over the past three years, I also became a returning student and just earned a doctorate in Education from UCLA. No shocker here: My thesis considered how TV movies can sometimes be educational. For educational scholars, who still harbor “deep-seated hostilities” toward Hollywood, my topic was an act of heresy – like telling the Pope that Jews go to heaven. One scholar told me, “you must have convinced yourself of this so you can sleep better at night.” But I was not deterred. After all, I’ve fought Hollywood capitalists for decades. I could handle a few critical cultural Marxists. Besides, I had four decades and dozens of programs to support my thesis.

More specifically, my research considered how LGBT-themed TV movies helped contribute to the LGBT movement by educating viewers about our lives. Even I was surprised at what I learned. For example, in 1972, That Certain Summer portrayed a gay man struggling with his teenage son’s rejection. The film aired less than three years after the Stonewall Riots and, at the time, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness. Nonetheless, the movie scored a massive audience and Emmys and helped define TV movies as a destination for social-themed narratives.

Since then, LGBT TV movies have been the target of a backlash from the political and religious Right and, to my surprise, the gay Left. For gay critics, these films could never be gay enough, although they misunderstood these are not gay movies for gay audiences; rather, these are gay-themed films meant for straight audiences – audiences who otherwise had never met someone who was gay or thought of them as freaks or sinners. Nonetheless, these protests would sometimes cost the networks millions in advertising revenue or subscribers. In the worse case, the backlash to Tales of the City brought down PBS’s American Playhouse, one of the most respected movie series in TV history.

For decades, TV movies have provided some of the most compelling and empathetic depictions of people with AIDS. An Early Frost was the first AIDS-themed movie of its time, on TV or in theaters, followed by dozens more, e.g., As Is, And the Band Played On, Angels in America and The Normal Heart. HBO alone has produced over 30 AIDS-themed programs, produced by courageous producers, writers, directors, and talent, and programmed by HBO executives, whose names almost never appear in any credits or IMDb. My research allowed me the privilege to interview the writers, producers, programming executives and directors of the most seminal LGBT TV movies of all time. I discovered how these artists, activists, and teachers struggled to get these programs on the air, sometimes putting their own careers on the line.

Over the past 40 years, TV movies have featured topics that, in a single night or over the course of a week, taught us valuable lessons about who we are as a people, nation, and species.

In my elementary school in North Carolina, we watched The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Roots, and Brian’s Song every year. As a result, my civil rights heroes became Jane Pittman, Kunta Kinte, and Gale Sayers. I drank with Jane Pittman at that water fountain. I ran next to Gale Sayers in the park. I turned to my best friend and said, “I want to do that. I want to make movies that teach.” And so I did.

Millions of TV viewers have discovered the truth about spousal abuse (The Burning Bed), incest (Something about Amelia), toxic spills (Bitter Harvest) and miscarriages of justice (Indictment: The McMartin Trial). We also learned about our complex, and not always noble, multicultural history, from Miss Evers’ Boys to Murder in Mississippi, Geronimo to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. And we became more powerfully aware of man’s tragic ability to commit genocide (Holocaust).

In fact, a TV movie may arguably have saved the world. ABC’s The Day After offered a fictional account of a nuclear bomb exploding in the U.S. Although politicians and critics tried to ban the program, the program reached 100 million people including the most powerful man in the world, President Reagan. As detailed in his memoir, the film affected him so deeply that he contacted the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to the end of the Arms Race.

Throughout their history, TV movies have often tackled subjects that feature films rarely do, especially today. As I teach my students, feature films are designed to launch global entertainment brands that are to be exploited across every platform and medium. While I often enjoy them, today’s feature films are marketing tools, designed to sell plush toys and theme park rides.

In contrast, television has another golden age, with some of the most brilliant and character-driven series the medium has ever seen. But the form is not the same. In series (and now Marvel-ous movies), there is no closure, no Aristotelian catharsis, and therefore little hope of transformation. Should one character die, he/she will replaced by another or come back to life. For every death on an operating table or miscarriage of justice, new life and redemption can be found in the coming attractions for the next episode.

Now, in the digital age, with audiences splintered across multiple channels, platforms, and screens, expensive TV movies have virtually disappeared. Even when they appear, they no longer leave the mark on our national conscious as they once did. Today if you want to send a message, send a tweet and hope that it goes viral.

Still, every once in a while, a TV movie will appear that helps elevate the form back to its former glory. And we are reminded that these stories told on this media in this unique format still has the power to transform both minds and normal hearts.

David Craig

About David Craig

David Craig is a media producer, communications professor (USC), LGBT media activist, and education scholar (UCLA). In other words, a storyteller. Please follow David on Twitter: @Producing2Power

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