Made for TV movies are films produced specifically for the television medium with no plans for a big screen theatre release. These films typically have smaller production budgets, fewer popular actors than their big screen counterparts and are one and a half to two hours in length. The mini-series also falls into the made for TV category. Mini-series films are longer productions meant to be aired on television over a period of several days. Direct tv often has several made for TV movies or mini-series airing.
The made for TV movie genre was created in the 1950s, but gained popularity in the 1980s. The most watched made for TV movie was produced in 1982 when ABC aired The Day After as its ABC Sunday Night Movie. The film depicted a nuclear attack on a midwestern town in the United States during the height of the Cold War scare with Russia. It was originally seen by more than 100 million television viewers and remains ranked at 16 in terms of highest ratings for an American television program.
Mini-series productions also pulled in large numbers of television viewers. In the 1980s, series such as North and South, The Thorn Birds and Roots, dominated the made for TV market. Roots still holds a spot as the third most watched American television program based on ratings and at the time of its original airing, more than 140 million viewers tuned in.
The made for TV movie genre still exists primarily on smaller cable television networks.