Monday, 14 April 2014

Turner Classic Movies Turns 20

It was 20 years ago today, on 14 April 1994, that Turner Classic Movies was launched at a ceremony in New York City's Times Square. The ceremony was attended by such classic movie stars as Arlene Dahl, Jane Powell, Celeste Holm, and Van Johnson, as well as the channel's host Robert Osborne.It was at this ceremony that Ted Turner, then head of Turner Broadcasting, flipped a switch and Turner Classic Movies (now commonly referred to by its initials, TCM) went live. The first film it showed was the 1939 classic (and still highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation) Gone with the Wind. Since then Turner Classic Movies has become the preeminent classic film cable channel in the United States and perhaps the world.

As might be expected, the origins of TCM are tied to the history of Turner Broadcasting. It was in 1970 that Ted Turner bought  WJRJ, a small independent television station in Atlanta, Georgia. It was from this small station, which would later become WTBS and still later TBS, that Turner Broadcasting evolved. By 1985 Turner Broadcasting was large enough and powerful enough that Ted Turner was able to buy MGM/UA. Mr. Turner was almost immediately forced to sell both Untied Artists and MGM, but he retained ownership of the vast MGM/UA library, which included all MGM films made before 1986, a good number of United Artists films, most of Warner Bros. films and animated shorts made before 1949, and the majority of RKO's films. Many of these films would be shown regularly, albeit with commercial interruptions, on Turner Broadcasting's new cable channel TNT, which launched in 1988. Indeed, the first movie ever shown on TNT was (you guessed it) Gone with the Wind. The classic films aired on TNT proved popular, popular enough that the idea for a channel devoted entirely to classic films seemed like a very good one. Unlike TNT, however, TCM has always shown classic films without commercial interruptions.

Of course, here it must be pointed out that Turner Classic Movies was not the first cable channel devoted to classic films. At the time that TCM was launched, American Movie Classics (often called by its initials AMC) was already nine and a half years old. AMC only showed films made prior to the 1950s and aired them without commercial interruption. American Movie Classics proved rather successful. Starting in 1993 AMC held annual  Film Preservation Festivals. Unfortunately in 2002 AMC began airing commercials and changed its format so that it showed more recent movies as well as classic films. Eventually the channel would drift away from showing classic films almost entirely, to the point that it became simply "AMC" instead of "American Movie Classics". There were multiple reasons for AMC's changes in format, although much of it may have had to do with fierce competition from Turner Classic Movies.

Indeed, it was in 1996 that Turner Broadcasting merged with the conglomerate Time Warner. As a result Turner Classic Movies now had access to Warner Bros. films made after 1949, as well as the Saul Zaentz and National General Pictures film libraries. Since then TCM has made deals with other studios (Universal, Paramount, and so on) to show their films. In the end, then, Turner Classic Movies has an absolutely vast library of films that they can show (around 10,000 films at any given time). This would make it hard for any other cable channel devoted to classic films to compete with them.

Even without its absolutely vast library of films Turner Classic Films would be a formidable opponent. Quite simply, its success does not simply rest with the fact that they could feasibly show more vintage films than any other channel in the world. There can be little doubt that much of its success rests with its programming.  Starting in May 1994 TCM has featured a Star of the Month, showing films of that particular star one night a week for the month (the first was Greta Garbo). It was in March 1995 that Turner Classic Movies began their annual 31 Days of Oscar, a month long event during which they air films that either won an Academy Award or were nominated for one. In 2006 31 Days of Oscar moved from March to February, as the Oscar ceremony had changed its annual date. It was in August 2003 that TCM began Summer Under the Stars, a month long event during which marathons of stars' films are shown each day.

It was in December 1998 that Turner Classic Movies produced their first "TCM Remembers" as a tribute to those film personalities who had died during the year. In addition to the long tribute including nearly every single film personality who died in a year, TCM also produces tributes to individual film personalties shortly after their deaths.

In addition to its special programming Turner Classic Movies has had several regular programmes through the years. Among the most popular regular programmes to air on TCM is The Essentials. During The Essentials a film considered essential for film buffs to view is shown, complete with a special introduction from the hosts and a discussion about the film afterwards. The Essentials debuted in 2001 and was originally hosted by director Rob Reiner. Eventually Robert Osborne took over hosting duties for The Essentials beginning in 2006. His original co-host was film critic Molly Haskell. Since then he has had a succession of co-hosts, the current one being actress Drew Barrymore. In 2008 a spin off of The Essentials, The Essentials Jr., was launched. The Essentials Jr. has the same format as the original series, although it shows classic films that will appeal to both children and adults.

In addition to The Essentials and The Essentials Jr., Turner Classic Movies also airs Private Screenings, a programme on which Robert Osborne interviews a figure from classic films. The show debuted under the name Reel to Reel on 8 June 1995. Mr. Osborne's first guest was Jane Powell. Turner Classic Movies also airs Silent Sunday Nights, a block usually of two films aired every Sunday night. In October 2006 TCM Underground debuted. TCM Underground airs late Friday night and is devoted to cult films. From 2004 to 2007 Turner Classic Movies aired Cartoon Alley on Saturday mornings. Hosted by Ben Ben Mankiewicz, three classic animated shorts were shown during each episode of  the show. Friday Night Spotlight is a regular series that airs on Friday nights and features films devoted to a particular theme over the course of a month. Past themes have included "Science in the Movies", "The Hollywood Costume", "Noir Writers", and "Second Looks (hosted by Illeana Douglas)".

Over the years Turner Classic Movies has aired several documentaries devoted to various aspects of classic film, some of which the channel also had a hand in producing. TCM has aired an entire series of documentaries under the heading Race and Hollywood, which has included such instalments as "Black Images on Film",  "Asian Images on Film", "Latino Images on Film", and "Native American Images on Film". As might be expected, TCM has aired documentaries devoted to specific movie stars, including Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, Rita (about Rita Hayworth), Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, GarboForever - Garbo, and so on. More recently Turner Classic Movies aired the documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Later this month it will air 1939, a documentary devoted to what many believe to be film's greatest year. 

Based on its programming alone Turner Classic Movies would be loved by classic film buffs, but its reach long ago went beyond the television screen. In January 1997 the first issue of Now Playing, TCM's programming guide and magazine devoted to classic film, was published. Turner Classic Movies would also begin issuing box sets of  DVDs under the heading of the TCM Vault Collection. The box sets consist of rare films and are usually devoted to a specific actor, director, studio, or film genre. The TCM web site, launched not long after the channel itself, has proven to be a valuable resource for classic film fans. Not only does it contain programming information, but a database filled with information and articles on thousands of films. Turner Classic Movies has also supported film preservation and restoration, often partnering with the Film Foundation (a non-profit organization devoted to film preservation). In 2000 TCM began the annual Young Composers Film Competition, in which young composers compete in scoring a restored, silent feature film.

Of course, among Turner Classic Movies' greatest accomplishments may be the annual TCM Classic Film Festival held every April. First held in 2010, it is a four day long festival hosted by Robert Osborne and featuring screenings of classic films, discussions, and other events.

Central to TCM's success has been its host for the past twenty years, Robert Osborne. The former reporter for The Hollywood Reporter has proven to be the perfect host for the channel, not only charming but possessing a seemingly endless knowledge of classic film. Over the years Mr. Osborne would become as loved by classic film fans as much as many classic movies stars. In 2003 Ben Mankiewicz joined Turner Classic Movies as a regular host. Since then he has also become a favourite with classic film buffs.

If Turner Classic Movies has grown into something more than a cable channel devoted to classic film, it is perhaps with good reason. At one time classic films were regularly shown on local television stations, generally late at night or on weekend afternoons. Unfortunately as networks expanded their programming on late nights and sports overtook weekend afternoons, classic films began to disappear from local television schedules. By 1994 there were only a few avenues through which a classic film fan could see vintage movies. He or she could watch them on AMC, their local PBS station (if he or she was lucky), or TNT (although there they would have commercial interruptions). If he or she couldn't watch them one of those ways, he or she could only hope that his or  her local video rental store had copies of classic films on VHS. Turner Classic Movies gave classic movie fans another avenue through which they could see classic films. This would not only be through the channel itself, but eventually TCM would make available many films on DVD that had not been widely available before. Today there is the TCM Streaming App, with which one can watch classic movies on one's mobile device or one's computer. Quite simply, Turner Classic Movies made classic films more readily available.

In making classic films more readily available Turner Classic Movies also provided another service to classic film buffs. Quite simply it has created a whole new generation of classic film fans. Many young classic film buffs first discovered classic movies on TCM. What is more, there seem to be a good number of young people who discovered classic films on TCM. At one time classic film fans tended to be a little bit older, either those who saw the films when they first came out or Baby Boomers and Generation Xers who had the opportunity to see them on local television. Now it is not unusual to find twenty year olds who are fans of classic films. Turner Classic Movies created a whole new generation of classic film buffs and in doing so saved classic films from being forgotten.

Of course, Turner Classic Movies has also done a great service to classic film buffs in exposing them to films that even the most experienced classic film fans might not have seen before. This is particularly true of Silent and Pre-Code films. Rarely shown on television, even in the days when local television stations did show vintage films, TCM would provide man classic film buffs their first opportunity to see films from the Silent and Pre-Code Eras.

Turner Classic Movies has proven invaluable to classic film buffs in the past twenty years. It became much more than a cable channel that shows classic films long ago. In fact, it has become much more than a resource for information on classic film long ago. Quite simply, it has become a focal point for classic film fandom. It is through TCM that classic film fans often meet and as a result share and discuss their love of classic movies. More than anything else, this could be TCM's greatest contribution to classic film fans.

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