Eye web's last showing May 8

“The Wizard of Oz,” a moderate box office performer that became an American classic through its annual network television airings over the last 42 years, is heading for cable.

TBS will announce today at its upfront sales presentation to advertisers in Los Angeles that the film, which for most of its broadcast run appeared on CBS, will air on the cabler beginning in 1999.

The 1939 MGM musical is part of the MGM film library, which Ted Turner purchased in the 1980s. CBS was able to hold on to the film for several licensing periods since then, but the current one ends this year and Turner is taking the pic for use on his cable superstation.

CBS has yet to finalize special plans for its final “Oz” airing on May 8, but the movie would figure to fit in nicely with the net’s plans next month for a celebration of its first 50 years as a broadcaster.

TBS said it plans to air “Oz” for the first time in November 1999, in conjunction with the film’s 60th anniversary.

“The Wizard of Oz” was the first film MGM sold to network television, with CBS paying $225,000 each for a pair of broadcasts.

Variety, which reviewed the initial “Oz” television airing in 1956 almost as if it were a new program, noted that it “defies both time and the diminution to homescreen size … It was tops in entertainment, and the network should make provisions for making an annual out of it.”

The film did air on a nearly annual basis for its entire network run, premiering to a 33.9 rating, 53 share in 1956. The availability of the film on videocassette and laserdisc, however, contributed to a gradual erosion of its television ratings, and “Oz” slipped to a low-water mark of 8.4/16 in May 1996.

“Oz,” which also appeared on NBC during its network run, is one of the few films to have weathered repeated airings on network television. Most feature films move on to cable after a handful of network runs. It has aired 38 times on network television, by far the most of any single motion picture. Only a couple of other films — “The Sound of Music” with 21 airings and “The Ten Commandments” with 19 — come close.

“The Wizard of Oz” first aired on CBS on Nov. 3, 1956, with Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion) as the host. Angela Lansbury served as host of the film’s 40th anniversary on television in 1996.

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