Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Turner Classic Movies Turns 15

Today Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is celebrating its fifteenth birthday. The cable channel, devoted to showing classic movies commercial free, first took the air on April 14, 1994. Since that time it has become the favourite cable channel of many a movie buff.

The beginning of Turner Classic Movies is to be found in the Turner Broadcasting System, a company consisting of such cable channels as TBS (originally the broadcast station WTBS), TNT, CNN, the Cartoon Network, and so on. It was in 1986 that Ted Turner, founder and head of the Turner Broadcasting System, acquired MGM/UA. This also meant that Turner acquired MGM's film library. While the amount of debut that the Turner Broadcasting System was then carrying forced Ted Turner to sell MGM/UA, he kept the MGM/UA library. In obtaining the MGM/UA library, Ted Turner also obtained the old Warner Brothers library (consisting of pre-1950 films and pre-1948 animated shorts). Warner Brothers had sold their pre-1950 films and pre-1948 shorts to Associated Artists Productions in the late Fifties. The company was bought out by United Artists in 1958. It was in the Sixties that RKO sold its library to United Artists. By the late Eighties, then, Ted turned controlled the films made by MGM prior to 1986, the Warner Brothers prior to 1950, and the RKO library. This included such classics as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and King Kong.

After acquiring these libraries, many classic films would show up on TNT, albeit with commercial interruptions. Here it should perhaps be pointed out that Ted Turner was not particularly well loved by film buffs. It was also in the late Eighties that Ted Turner aggressively promoted the colourisation of classic black and white films. During this period Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, It's a Wonderful Life, and other classic films were all colourised. This naturally resulted in considerable outcry against Ted Turner. Fortunately, by the mid-Nineties the colourisation process had proven too expensive and Turner ceased colourising films.

It could well have been the success of classic films aired on TNT that led to the founding of Turner Classic Movies. It was advertised that April The channel would be "...uninterrupted, uncolorized and commercial-free!" The date April 14, 1994 was chosen because it was supposedly the 100th anniversary of the first movie to be shown publicly in New York City. The first movie ever aired on the channel was Gone With the Wind.

Then, as now, Robert Osborne was the host on Turner Classic Movies. Osborne had been a contract player for Desilu when he was young, appearing in a small part in The Californians and guest starring on Whirlybirds and The Beverly Hillbillies. It was Lucille Ball herself who advised Osborne to combine his interest in entertainment and journalism. In 1977 he became a reporter for The Hollywood Reporter. In 1983 he started writing the lead column of the paper, "The Rambling Reporter." He had also written several books on film prior to his hosting duties on TCM.

As might be expected, from the beginning much of TCM's programming came from the MGM, UA, RKO, and Warner Brothers libraries. Their programming is not limited to films from these libraries, as they also show films under licence from other studios, such as Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Walt Disney Productions.

Turner Classic Movies would not remain the only classic movie channel for long. Only a few months later, on October 1, 1994, the channel received competition in the form of American Movies Classics (AMC). In the beginning AMC was much like TCM, airing classic films commercial-free and uninterrupted. This would eventually change. In 2000 AMC started airing ten minutes worth of commercials per hour. In October 2002 it changed its format so that it would air more recent films in order to appeal to a broader audience. In 2003 it would deemphasise the name American Movie Classics in favour of AMC. It seems possible that AMC simply could not compete with TCM in the realm of classic movies.

The same month that AMC opened its doors, TCM's other primary competitor also went on the air. The Fox Movie Channel began as fXM--Movies from Fox on October 31, 1994, changing its name to the Fox Movie Channel in 2000. The Fox Movie Channel airs movies from the entire history of 20th Century Fox, the studio having retained its library all these years. Like TCM the Fox Movie Channel is commercial free.

Turner Classic Movies was only two years old when the conglomerate Time Warner acquired the Turner Broadcasting System. As a result, TCM now had access to all Warner Brothers movies made after 1950, as well as films from libraries which Warner Brothers had bought (including the National General Pictures and Saul Zaentz libraries).

In 1996 TCM launched Now Playing, the channel's viewing guide. Not only does Now Playing feature the channel's complete schedule for a month, but photos, trivia, and articles about classic movies.

While the cable channel's various promos have changed over the years, TCM's programming largely has not. To this day the bulk of the channel's programming consists of classic films. That is not to say that TCM has not had its own original programming. Over the years TCM has shown many documentaries on film, including Stardust: The Bette Davis Story, Lana Turner: A Daughter's Memoirs, Billy Wilder Speaks, and many others. In 2000 it debuted the series The Essentials. Each week The Essentials spotlights a classic film, complete with an introduction and a discussion of the film after it has aired. It was originally hosted by director Rob Reiner and later Sydney Pollack and Peter Bogdanovich. Since 2006 it has been hosted by Robert Osborne and a co-host (currently Alec Baldwin). In October 2006 TCM debuted TCM Underground, hosted by Rob Zombie and dedicated to various cult films (primarily in the horror genre).

Every year in February Turner Classic Movies shows the film festival called 31 Days of Oscar, which looks back at various films which have won or have been nominated for an Academy Award. Every August TCM holds it Month of Stars, with each day dedicated to a single star. Since 2000 TCM has held the annual Young Composers Film Competition, in which young composers must score a restored, feature-length silent film.

I believe I can speak for all fans of classic films when I say that Turner Classic Films has been a godsend to movie buffs. By the Nineties most local TV station had ceased to show older films, if they showed movies at all. Similarly, the various cable channels tended to favour more recent films. There were becoming fewer and fewer venues where a film buff could watch classic movies. Turner Classic Movies then came about at precisely the right time, when it was becoming a rare thing for one to see classic movies on television. What made all of this better is that not only did TCM actually show classic movies (and almost nothing but classic movies), but it showed them uninterrupted, commercial-free, and usually in their original screen format (even today it is rare to see films in letterbox on television). What is more, TCM sometimes shows movies that are not yet available on DVD, giving viewers the chance to see films that they might not otherwise get to. If TCM has lasted 15 years, it is perhaps because it is because it is simply giving people what they want and what they see nowhere else--classic films.


Squirrel said...

I'm kind of addicted to TCM, but since I haven't been home much, I Tivo a lot of movies to watch at night.

Aaron said...

TCM is THE channel on my TV... without this channel not only would I have missed, but continue to miss so many great and even lesser known films.

TCM alone has me investing in DVDs and the like I would never have before. For instance "The Narrow Margin", "Kiss Me Deadly", "The Women", "Humoresque" , etc etc.. would have NEVER heard of these and many other wonderful films.