Behind-the-scenes drama threatens TCM; will the classic-film network survive?

by STEPHEN WHITTY
tcm

Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown,” which is the kind of movie that will be harder to find on television if TCM is destroyed.

Is it going to be a slow fade-out for Turner Classic Movies?

For a little while, after the 2022 merger that birthed Warner Bros. Discovery, the channel seemed to escape the new conglomerate’s attention. Perhaps the ludicrously overpaid geniuses running Warner were too busy making other bad decisions, like shelving “Batgirl,” not shelving “The Flash,” diluting the still-potent brand of HBO, and steering the once-stable CNN straight into the rapids.

But then they finally noticed TCM.

Unfortunately.

Corporate chains of command were altered, to put the channel under stricter control. Staffers were told to leave the offices they had occupied for 20 years, and move into a new building. (All those vintage photos and posters on the wall? Throw ‘em out.) Finally, the top TCM executives were ordered to cut the workforce budget by two-thirds. Faced with firing most of their staff, they basically chose to fire themselves instead. The cuts were made anyway, reducing 90 positions to 20.

There have been some happier developments since then. But before I get to those, I want to talk about why TCM is so important.

The first reason is, as I’ve written before, classic movies are important. As Americans, we don’t grow up raised on national myths about King Arthur or Vikings. We’re too young a country for that. Instead we have the movies — “The Godfather” and “Chinatown” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Casablanca.” Gangsters and private eyes and cowboys and quiet heroes. Those are our legends — our cultural touchstones. They unite us and help define us and we need to keep them alive.

The second reason is that TCM has become the central resource for those stories. It wasn’t always that way, of course. If you grew up in the NY Metro area in the ’60s and ’70s, you couldn’t flip through the TV channels without finding a classic film. Channel 5 had the Warner Bros. and old Universal catalogs; channel 2 had MGM; channel 9 had RKO and a lot of British imports. Several stations ran old monster pictures on Saturday nights; several others stretched more recent films over multiple, afternoon installments. (Remember “The 4:30 Movie”?)

Then cable arrived, with the promise of even more choices.

Ironically, though, that soon turned out to be no choice at all. Local stations increasingly filled out their programming with syndicated programs and reruns. Meanwhile, cable channels that began with high ideals — remember when AMC stood for “American Movie Classics”? When the Discovery Channel only ran documentaries? When Bravo was “dedicated to film and the performing arts”? — soon abandoned those aims to chase after bigger audiences. Classic films were pushed aside. Errol Flynn and Meryl Streep gave way to smelly fishermen and surreal housewives.

Turner Classic Movies, though, stood firm.

Perhaps that’s because it was a channel created, not by a corporate board looking at spreadsheets, but a single, eccentric entertainment mogul. Back in the early ’90s, Ted Turner owned some cable channels. He also owned a vast library of films. Why not combine the two? He knew a smart business move when he saw it. He also liked movies — “Gone With the Wind” was his favorite — even if he had briefly incurred the ire of film buffs by colorizing some of the more famous black-and-white pictures he owned.

So TCM began, with a vast movie library and a vow to respect those films, and their fans. These pictures wouldn’t be colorized — or interrupted by commercials, or “panned-and-scanned” to eliminate wide-screen compositions, or cut for time, or censored. Nor would they be mocked. The late Robert Osborne, the channel’s signature host, once told me he never criticized a movie on air, even if he thought it was a turkey. “It’s somebody’s favorite movie,” he noted.

Many mergers later, though, Turner Classic Movies is part of a conglomerate that not only owns all the old Turner properties — including TNT, TBS, The Cartoon Network and CNN — but everything from Animal Planet to the Food Network. And it’s not a good fit. In fact, one anonymous TCM staffer recently told The Hollywood Reporter, their new bosses at corporate have “a fundamental misunderstanding or willful ignorance” about what the channel stands for.

“TCM is more than just scheduling films,” the source said. “We’re trying to present these movies in a way that honors the filmmakers and contextualizes the time in which they were made. That comes from us, not just someone who the day before was working on ‘MILF Manor.’ ”

Katharine Hepburn is TCM’s “Star of the Month,” this month.

There have been some encouraging developments recently — due, mostly, to the public outrage of celebrity TCM fans like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson. After they spoke to Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, longtime TCM programmer Charles Tabesh returned. Scorsese, Spielberg and Anderson also volunteered to be “involved meaningfully” with the station going forward.

And, perhaps most significantly, responsibility for the station itself has been taken away from the WBD “TV networks chief content officer” it had been assigned to, and handed over to presumably more film-friendly executives at Warner Bros. Pictures.

But is that enough?

Sixty-nine TCM staffers are still missing in action, with their duties either eliminated or farmed out to other Warner Bros. Discovery employees. Will these people put the same energy into creating those marvelous montages, like the channel’s annual tribute to the year’s deceased? The beloved TCM classic film festival will reportedly continue, but who will oversee TCM’s popular, celebrity-hosted cruises? Or the many books they helped create? And how will this affect the on-air hosts, some of whom depend on freelance writers for their scripted introductions?

Sure, trim the waste, if you can find any. (Get rid of the TCM Wine Club, if you must — in fact, please do.) But if you start really slashing things — maybe cutting back on all the little dedicated niches for noir and silent film, ending original programming on serious subjects like great cinematography, or Black film — you not only lose your audience, you’ll eventually lose TCM itself. Don’t think it can’t happen. (TCM’s channel in the U.K. goes dark on July 6.)

And yes, public assurances have been made, with Zaslav reportedly promising Spielberg, Scorsese and Anderson that the channel is here to stay. But, as filmmaker Paul Schrader tartly observed on Facebook, “It wouldn’t be the first time a studio head has lied to marquee directors.”

Stay tuned.

We need your help!

CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET

Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.

$

Custom Amount

Personal Info

Donation Total: $20.00

Explore more articles:

Leave a Comment

Sign up for our Newsletter