Turner Classic Movies hosts allay fears for network's future: 'All is well'
Through the rise of cable, the golden age of prestige TV, and the pivot to streaming, one network has remained a cozy place to hang your hat — Turner Classic Movies.
Founded in 1994 by media mogul Ted Turner, the network's mission is unique: to program around-the-clock viewing of uncut, commercial-free classic films. They air along with insightful introductions by knowledgeable hosts (beginning with TCM's founding father Robert Osborne), and are organized around new themes each month. It's film school from the comfort of your couch.
But TCM has not remained the same in its nearly 30-year history. It has added hosts: first, Ben Mankiewicz, and now, a team of five that includes Mankiewicz, silent film expert Jacqueline Stewart, film noir czar Eddie Muller, cinephile Alicia Malone, and EW awards correspondent Dave Karger. In recent years, it's rebranded, shaking up its graphic style, adopting a new motto, "Where Then Meets Now," and expanding the definition of classic, as we all must do as time marches on.
With every bump TCM has endured, one truism has remained: Its fans hate change. That isn't surprising for a network built on preserving and celebrating the value of our cinematic past.
"People feel helpless because stuff comes at them on social media and they assume the worst," Muller says. "But the changes that you're going to see are a natural progression. A movie from the 1980s is now fortysomething years old. You have to start thinking about classic film in a slightly different way. It doesn't mean we're abandoning any core mission that we started with. It just means the mission is expanding."
But the latest shake-up behind-the-scenes, Discovery's purchase of TCM's parent company Warner Bros. and radical changes at the behest of new CEO David Zaslav, have ignited a new wave of "worst case scenario" theorizing, fears that aren't wholly unfounded given Zaslav's belt-tightening approach to Warner Bros. content on the whole.
As the merger has progressed, audiences have watched as HBO Max Originals, Looney Tunes shorts, and more have vanished from streaming platforms, while finished films have been shelved before premiering. TCM hasn't been immune to company-wide layoffs, and a recent announcement that the network would no longer be partnering with Fathom's Big Screen Classics screening series could understandably be perceived as a red flag.
From an outsider's perspective, the general sense has been that Zaslav doesn't understand (or worse, doesn't care about) the value of the history he's inherited. That sentiment has reached such a fever pitch, the National Society of Film Critics recently bestowed their Film Heritage Award on TCM with distinctly pointed language, citing "a service too easily taken for granted by audiences and worthy of the utmost care and attention from its corporate owners."
While the award is another vote of confidence for the network, host Dave Karger thinks it might be gilding the lily a tad in its language. "It's lovely because a group like the National Society of Film Critics knows what they're talking about," he tells EW. "But I have to say, I have felt nothing but love from people that I've met in high places at this corporation. Yes, it's a challenging time and there's been some changes at TCM, but overall, we're in a really good place and are supported by the powers that be at this company, who are true fans of this network."
It would be easy to write such a statement off as peddling the company line. But on a chilly January day on the Warner Bros. lot, the evidence that these words are sincere is abundant. Nestled in between two soundstages (the likes of which witnessed the making of Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood and other classics), the five hosts are filming a promotion for the network beneath a theater marquee bearing the network's "Where Then Meets Now" pledge.
You can see all the trappings of a film set, from a video village and a hair-and-make-up team, to craft services and an extensive lighting and camera crew. The hosts are gussied up (though Mankiewicz is wearing ripped jeans: "Eva-Marie Saint is going to be very disappointed," he quips, an inside joke for longtime TCM festival-goers).
In short, it's reflective of a clear financial investment that belies any theories of imminent dismantling. Zaslav himself makes a surprise appearance on set, eager to introduce himself to the hosts. Once they're done filming, they're extended an unexpected invitation to his office.
Returning from that visit to sit down with EW, the hosts are aflutter with what they've seen and heard in the studio head's office. "He's so enthusiastic in his support for TCM, and it's genuine," says Stewart, who is also the Director and President of the Academy Museum. "TCM was on in his office. That's not just some myth." They also recount how Zaslav had a copy of Muller's book on his coffee table and was quoting from recent segments that aired on the channel.
"He knew stuff about all of us, and he told his assistant to make sure to tell us TCM is always on," adds Mankiewicz. "He didn't just turn it on for this."
Of all the hosts, Mankiewicz has been with the network longest, joining the team in 2003 as TCM's second-ever host. He's weathered a sea of changes, including mergers with AT&T and Discovery, the decline of network television on the whole, and the death of beloved original host Osborne.
"This feels different," he says, optimistically, of Zaslav. "We've had a lot of changes in the last five years, one after another. New bosses. When [Zaslav] says that they value what we do and that we're going to be continuing what we do in the foreseeable future, I believe him. And he's ready. He is connected in this town, and he's prepared to use that muscle to make sure this town turns out to support us."
To hear Mankiewicz tell it, Zaslav is more interested in honoring the legacies of the Golden Age of Hollywood studio heads than outsiders might realize. He's currently renovating legendary Paramount leader Robert Evans' former home with the aim of moving in, and he's the first Warner Bros. CEO in years to request that Jack Warner's desk be taken out of storage and placed in his office. "He understands movie history," adds Mankiewicz. "He wanted to work at Jack Warner's desk. That mattered to him. I'm not sure that it's mattered to some of the other people."
The five hosts seem to share a collective sense that none of this is blowing smoke. "For the most of the time we were up [in his office], Zaslav talked about the value of curation," says Mankiewicz. "He gets what we do. He's not a guy who thinks, 'Let's just show the movies.' He gets what TCM does and why it's important."
"All is well right now," says Malone. "Nothing's changed. We all feel very protective over the channel and we know how precious it is, and increasingly rare. So, not on our watch."
Beyond the hosts, some of the industry's biggest names are also carrying that "not on our watch" banner, a fact that Mankiewicz says was hammered home by the outcry from A-list directors in response to AT&T's decision to shutter TCM's initial streaming platform FilmStruck. "It's when you see Steven Spielberg, Barry Jenkins, Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola — all the guys saying, 'No, protect this,'" he says.
TCM is the rare niche network that has a fervent, loyal fan base, a status the pandemic brought into sharp relief. "I'm more aware than ever of our devoted viewers," says Karger. "I think about them more than I ever did before all of these changes. Because they have stuck with us through us filming intros on our iPads, doing make-up ourselves, and lighting in our apartments or homes."
Each host has dozens of stories about fans who reached out to them during the COVID-19 lockdown, celebrating the network as a comfort in a dark time, or writing to ask them to turn their camera to a different angle in order to see more of the books on their shelf. "It was a super intimate thing to do," Stewart says of filming her intros from home. "Being so new to the network at that time, it really hammered home the degree of connection people wanted to feel."
That level of connection is also something the hosts are feeling with Warner Bros. for the first time. "There's such a logical connection between this defining studio in the history of Hollywood and the classic channel to tell that story," Mankiewicz says. "This is a promising point in TCM's development and not a cause for alarm."
As Warner Bros. celebrates its 100th year in 2023, TCM will play an essential role in the proceedings, including tributes at the channel's annual film festival and on-air segments from the hosts that will tell the story of the studio's history. "Our understanding is that TCM is going to be a centerpiece of the overall company celebration of the centennial anniversary," says Karger.
The hosts also see this new bond between studio and network as a way to demonstrate to those at Warner Bros. who are unfamiliar with TCM's mission what they have to offer. "It shows how we can be of service and what we do in this broad swath of networks," says Malone. "We're the history keepers."
The network wants to grow. Stewart says there are active conversations about how they can further the relationship between TCM and the exhibitions and screenings of the Academy Museum.
All of this goodwill and reassurance doesn't necessarily mean TCM will remain frozen in amber, never to change as the world shifts around it. During nearly 30 years of existence, it's founded a wine club, launched a feted podcast, and curated an annual film festival and classic film cruise, all with the purpose of reaching their fans in as many ways as possible.
"This industry is changing, and there's not a cable channel in the world that isn't reevaluating how it does business," reflects Mankiewicz. "That's a truism that is inescapable. But that said, the sky is not falling, and there is a place for TCM. Discussions about how this channel is going to look going forward should be seen as welcome, not as, 'Oh, no, what's happening?' We are planning for a changing future that includes TCM. That's how people ought to look at it."
With that in mind, those who love the network hope it's just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
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