It's a cause for concern: Turner Classic Movies' parent, WarnerMedia, was sold by AT&T, and is set to merge with Discovery in 2022.
Not that TCM is in any kind of trouble. But as a longtime fan and MediaPost editor who has covered its Classic Film Festival twice, I’ve watched TCM survive several corporate shifts since its founding by Ted Turner.
It could be worrisome that TCM is unlike any other cable channel. It sells no outside advertising (an untapped revenue source, greedy corporate owners might think) and has a hardcore group of subscribers who tend to skew on the older side.
Those differentiators are also strengths.
TMC sells itself on airing classic movies uninterrupted. And having hardcore fans and a strong brand are pretty amazing for a mostly linear channel. What other network has its own group of nationwide fan clubs (Backlot) and runs festivals where subscribers pay good money to convene and watch, in person, movies they can also see on the channel?
Still, to survive, TCM probably needs to attract a broader, younger, and perhaps cord-cutting, base. It’s always expanding the notion of what a film “classic” is, airing more recent movies. And it’s begun moving beyond cable and satellite subscriptions. TCM is now available on Hulu Live TV, Sling TV, AT&T TV and YouTube TV.
TCM is also using corporate synergy, teaming with sister company HBO Max for a “Classics Curated by TCM Hub” that allows HBO Max subscribers to stream a variety of older movies, some with special intros. And when the TCM Classic Film Festival was forced to go virtual this year, HBO Max hosted exclusive programming as a second virtual venue -- which tripled TCM hub traffic from the previous week, according to a company spokesperson.
TCM has leaned into another of its strengths: the quality of its movie commentary.
Introductory (and “outro”) segments are now longer, which means more time to elicit off-the-cuff surprises like the remark made by a recent guest programmer, Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson ("Rain Man," "Wag the Dog"). Introducing “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Levinson noted he was lukewarm about Cary Grant, the movie’s star. “That’s something no one has ever said on TCM before,” responded host Ben Mankiewicz.
The expanded roster of hosts has also improved on-air commentary. Since the 2017 death of Robert Osborne, who had been the beloved face of the channel since its launch in 1994, four hosts have been gradually added beyond surviving mainstay Ben Mankiewicz.
Each has his or her own onscreen energy and specialty: Eddie Muller, the sometimes-snarky master of film noir; Jacqueline Stewart, the scholarly Sunday-night silent-movie host often tapped for social commentary and African-American topics; Alicia Malone, wide-eyed enthusiast specializing in women and film; and Dave Karger, a mellow former journalist who provides commentary on gay themes.
In June, a series called “Classroom Cinema” may have provided a blueprint for TCM to ready the way for viewers of tomorrow. The series paid tribute to pandemic hero teachers, four of whom were chosen to introduce some of their favorite movies.
The teachers, who often screen film classics for their students, said they face objections like “That movie’s in black and white!” and “It’s so old!”
So they start with what’s interesting or relevant to their kids. Jim Pieper, who teaches younger children, leans into animal love with dog-focused movies like “Lassie Come Home” and kids’ innate interest in slapstick comedy with Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy films.
High-school English teacher Susan Loccke’s lesson on “A Streetcar Named Desire” asked students to design their own T-shirts, since Marlon Brando's onscreen costume had spearheaded the beginning of the T-shirt as an outer garment.
And when teacher Maria Schwab introduced the 82-year-old "Wuthering Heights” on-air, she said the key was to “start with a good story” and its suspense. “When Cathy looks at [Heathcliff] and says ‘You’re dirty,’ I would say: ‘Do you want to know what happens afterwards? Just wait and see.’”