Turner Classic Movies holds our cinematic past. Does it have a future under Warner Bros. Discovery?

Last week's reports of TCM's death may have been exaggerated but movie buffs, classic and otherwise, should worry

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 26, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

American actor Humphrey Bogart and Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman on the set of Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
American actor Humphrey Bogart and Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman on the set of Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz. (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

You must remember this: Turner Classic Movies is one of the few surviving cable TV institutions that cannot be taken for granted. It was never a popular destination, not that anyone ever expected a channel allocated to old films to be. But it was and is a lighthouse of history and artistry in a gale of middling noise, featuring thoughtfully collated collections of seminal works made by and starring cinematic legends.

For almost 30 years TCM has offered something other channels don't – a focus on movies that aren't in circulation anywhere else and influence on the people who create great TV and film. The technical methods that make prestige shows that stand above the rest of the rabble weren't plucked from the ether. The directors, producers and writers employing them learned from filmmakers and screenwriters famous and unsung who came before them.

So when the news broke last week about TCM's staff being slashed from around 90 personnel to about 20 – part of the layoffs rolling through Warner Bros. Discovery's TV networks – the filmmaking community was beside itself. 

TCM is one of the few places on TV devoted to sparking memory and educational curiosity. But this is a romantic's argument for its preservation.

"Turner Classic Movies has been a fixture in my life for as long as I can remember," Ryan Reynolds tweeted last Wednesday after the layoff details went public. "It's a holy corner of film history — and a living, breathing library for an entire art form. Please don't f**k with @tcm."

TCM host Dave Karger reassured viewers on Twitter: "My goal (and I know the other hosts agree) is to try to be a stabilizing and familiar presence in the months ahead. There will be some bumps, but we will all be on the road together," he posted on Wednesday.

If you were to turn on the channel right now, it doesn't look like anyone has messed with it. Yet. As TheWrap reported, among the channel's departures are four senior staffers, including executives who oversaw programming and content strategy – as in, the people instrumental to the curation of TCM's lineup, along with general manager Pola Chagnon, who guided the network for more than 25 years.

Warner Bros. Discovery's chief content officer for its TV networks group Kathleen Finch assured employees in a staff memo shared in multiple trade outlets that the company remains committed to the TCM brand and "its purpose to protect and celebrate culture-defining movies." 

"As storytellers, that is our legacy," she stated in the memo, "and we will continue bringing the history and impact of classic films to life on-air and in other ways." Hmm.

The average viewer wouldn't be familiar with the names of the departed executives. But its diehard supporters, including the likes of Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Spielberg, know those executives shaped the thematic scheduling and presentation of its schedule, as well as extending the brand beyond our small screens.

TCM sponsors one of the best-regarded classic film festivals in the country, held this year in April. On its opening night, Spielberg and Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav celebrated the world premiere of the 4D restored version of the 1959 Western "Rio Bravo." Zaslav hailed TCM as "the history of our country," at that event, making last week's move even more galling . . . and entirely on brand.

Zaslav memorably declared back in 2008, right before Discovery Communications became a publicly traded company, that it would no longer be thought of as a cable brand but a "content company." That manifested in a variety of ways in the years that followed, but there may be no clearer example than TLC's transformation from a channel built around instructional programming into the home of the Duggars and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo."

Much more recently, Zaslav hired Chris Licht away from "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" to overhaul CNN. That experiment ended poorly earlier this month.

TCM has rolled with its share of changes and updates over the years too, sometimes to the ire of its faithful who, say, question the inclusion of '80s films in the same arena as "Casablanca." (Then everyone does the math, mourns their long-gone youth and quiets down.) In general, it has remained on mission and retained its cultural necessity.

That remains the case in the age of streaming. The greatest films of any era pass into a cultural void unless they're shared or discovered, sparking curiosity and leading to more exploration and enrichment in one's cinematic knowledge.

This is how film buffs and critics like me find their calling, along with filmmakers, designers and anyone who appreciates cultural aesthetics. TCM also draws those who simply want to watch an old Western or film noir that reminds them of a loved one who introduced them to the joy of classic movies, or some time in their lives when they stumbled upon a black and white feature that made its mark in their memories. In a culture given over to nostalgia this channel provides the ultimate fix, along with brief explanations of each movie's historical significance. It's one of the few places on TV devoted to sparking memory and educational curiosity.

But this is a romantic's argument for TCM's preservation. When it comes to the movie and TV business, rosy ideals are meaningless next to profit.

TCM was never a moneymaker for its parent companies, stretching back to its 1994 founding, when Ted Turner conceived of the channel as a clearinghouse for his expansive collection of classic films.

That linear TV legacy is part of the conundrum that whoever is taking charge of TCM must contend with moving forward. The channel earns its keep from cable carriage fees – a modest take compared to other WBD properties – but still amounted to around $266 million in net operating revenue last year, according to figures from S&P Global Intelligence reported by TheWrap.

Putting that in perspective, Variety reports that Zaslav's total 2021 compensation package, which included a stock option grant from the company, was about $246.6 million.

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Zaslav responded to the film community's hue and cry by whispering to The Hollywood Reporter that two of the studio's most respected producers, Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy, will assume oversight of the channel. This comes after the initial announcement that Michael Ouweleen, who previously ran TCM and is now in charge of Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Adult Swim and Discovery Family would serve as the network's new head. The THR report clarifies that Ouweleen and Finch would run the side while De Luca and Abdy will guide its creative direction.

When it comes to the movie and TV business, rosy ideals are meaningless next to profit.

With the old cable subscription models becoming increasingly obsolete as consumers flock to streaming platforms, ensuring that TCM has a prominent place in that environment is crucial. If TCM were to receive a dedicated category within Max, WBD would still need to ensure that its content was prominently surfaced and recommended along with its more recently produced offerings. This would approximate the conditions under which an appreciation for the Golden Age of Hollywood is fostered. Where past generations of viewers might have encountered old movies on local stations, where they once filled the time between morning TV and early evening lineups, Millennials and Gen Z make their cinematic discoveries via algorithmic recommendations.

None of this can happen unless WBD gets its house in order with its Max streaming service. The service's programmers have already infuriated the creative community by jamming its series and films into an undifferentiated pile, placing HBO's programming on par with basic cable unscripted.

It's all content, right?

Scorsese, Spielberg and Anderson met with Zaslav last week and explained via a public statement, "Our primary aim is to ensure that TCM's programming is untouched and protected."

The statement continued, "We are heartened and encouraged by the conversations we've had thus far, and we are committed to working together to ensure the continuation of this cultural touchstone that we all treasure."

We'll see. We hope.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Commentary David Zaslav Golden Age Movies Tcm Turner Classic Movies Tv Warner Bros Discovery