By Leah Hochbaum

In years past, on U.S. television, many movies of the week (MOW or TV movies), if not about the diseases-of-the-week, had absurd names such as Mother, May I Sleep With Danger and Co-ed Call Girls (which both, oddly enough, starred 90210 alum Tori Spelling), and were often so C-movie acted that it was hard for even the most die-hard TV lovers to sit through them. But these days, while many TV movies still may not qualify for the silver screen, higher production values and a seemingly explicit decision by MOW-makers to treat these often issue-oriented flicks with humor, have turned these one-time jokes into new contenders for ratings dominance.

Recent successes such as A&E’s Wedding Wars, about a gay wedding planner played by John Stamos, who decides to strike rather than plan his brother’s nuptials, after realizing he may never get to have a wedding of his own; Sci Fi’s The Lost Room, a drama about a mysterious room; and Disney Channel powerhouse High School Musical, which has become a worldwide phenomenon, are breathing new life into a genre that, for a time, seemed all but dead.

“What we’re seeing is a significant [TV movie] revival on cable,” said David A. Dreilinger, president and CEO of Lightworks Enterprises, which recently acquired MOW Have No Fear, about the life and times of Pope John Paul II, from ABC, and is “already seeing a lot of action” for it. According to Dreilinger, the reason for the resuscitation of the genre is as simple as the cyclical nature of the business. “Almost every genre of programming has gone through a cycle,” he said. “The sitcom was dead, then Carsey-Werner came out with The Cosby Show, and then everyone did a sitcom. One-hour dramas were out of vogue for a while, and now they’re back.”

Dreilinger also pointed out that TV movies are especially good for cablers looking to best big broadcasters. “It makes sense to provide programming that’s good and at the same time is something that the broadcast networks are not providing. It’s a great counter-programming strategy.”

Marina Cordoni, independent distribution agent for Breakthrough Entertainment’s TV Movies division, concurred, but added that the holiday season tends to see a rise in Christmas-themed MOWs. “People want to get swept away,” she said. “And unlike dramatic series, 90-minute TV movies offer up a little bit of drama, but are often great for the soul.” She added that broadcasters have realized that while the holiday season should be uplifting, the stress of shopping and traveling often results in little more than emptied wallets and depression. “We want to feel Christmas cheer and it’s up to broadcasters to pick up that audience,” she said.

Cordoni feels that audiences originally moved away from MOWs because “our time is limited.” When there’s event television on, such as Idol and Survivor, people don’t want to miss a single episode, and that in turn, gave them less time to watch other types of television.

“But,” she was quick to add, “I don’t think the audience got bored with them. Broadcasters just need to reevaluate time slots [for MOWs]. Sunday afternoons when you’re still in your pajamas are a great time to watch a TV movie.”

Yet while many in the biz are noticing a resurgence in the popularity of the TV movie genre — specifically in the U.S. — others just simply aren’t seeing it. “I don’t think they’re coming back,” said Mark Dineley, vice president of International Media Sales and head of Latin American Program Sales for U.K.-based Power. “The genre doesn’t work particularly well in Latin America,” he said, because the dominance of female-oriented telenovelas makes other female-oriented programming all but irrelevant. “But,” he added, “there is a fair amount of demand for action-oriented stuff for male viewers — even torrentially cheap, low-budget action thrillers.”