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How Turner Classic Movies Built a Marquee Brand by Catering to Film Fans

Turner Classic Movies, the last cable channel launched by Ted Turner as an independent media mogul, is hitting its silver on-air anniversary this month. But the TCM brand is well positioned to enter a golden age as the tide turns in the marketplace for cable TV channels.

TCM has spent 25 years building up a community of film fanatics who love the channel itself, not just the movies it screens. The Turner Classic Movies seal of approval draws thousands of attendees annually to the TCM Classic Film Festival, which kicks off its 10th edition in Los Angeles this week, and to TCM-branded screenings in theaters around the country.

Since 2011, TCM has offered film-focused cruises in partnership with Disney and other luxury ship operators. Three years ago, it launched an official fan club — the Backlot — that now has 34 chapters, creating a grassroots network for local promotions such as the “TCM in Your Hometown” contest events.

The channel’s vibrant profile and dominance of the classic movie category makes it a must-have in a skinny-bundle world. That parent company WarnerMedia owns most (but not all) of the titles that unspool on the channel is fuel for the conglom’s plans to launch a broad-based streaming platform.

“TCM is a brand, not just a TV network,” says Jennifer Dorian, exec VP and general manager of TCM. “Much of our future growth will come from fan engagement initiatives.”

TCM’s 25th birthday arrives April 14, just a month after the Atlanta-based operation made a significant shift amid a broader shake-up of AT&T’s management of WarnerMedia properties. Oversight of TCM has shifted from Turner, which has largely been dismantled, to Warner Bros. For TCM, a closer alignment with the Warner Bros. shield that graces so many of its movies is a natural fit. After all, Warners is home to TCM’s most-screened movie to date — 1942’s “Casablanca” — with 150 runs and counting.

“We’re really energized by the new structure,” Dorian says. “Being in the Warner Bros. fold will put us closer to the movies and to creative ideas. There are new opportunities for fans, for consumer products that will really add to our business.”

TCM has a gold-plated brand because it was designed to appeal to movie devotees rather than a mass audience. The decision was made early on to keep it commercial-free, and the mantra of “no edits and no interruptions” has held firm through successive regimes at Turner, and now Warner Bros.

“Context and curation is what we’re known for,” says Charlie Tabesh, senior VP of programming for Turner Classic Movies. “We’ve never programmed the channel with ratings in mind. If we did, we wouldn’t be playing silent films or 1930s black-and-white movies.”

The decision to keep TCM commercial-free had financial consequences, but the executive team that developed the channel — authorized by a vote of Turner Broadcasting System’s board of directors on June 4, 1993 — knew it would be more valuable in the long run to cater to its core audience. Cable operators agreed. It didn’t hurt in the push to launch TCM that Turner at the time counted Time Warner Cable, Comcast and John Malone’s Tele-Communications Inc. among its sizable equity investors. (Time Warner swallowed up all of Turner in September 1996.)

A movie channel for Turner was a no-brainer given founder Ted Turner’s prescient move in the mid-1980s to acquire the pre-1948 MGM library, the early RKO library and broad rights to Warner Bros.’ golden age films. With that vault, the Turner team knew it would not be hard to best the primary competition, Cablevision’s American Movie Classics.

“This was not going to be a channel to celebrate old Hollywood,” says Brad Siegel, who headed Turner’s entertainment arm at the time TCM was conceived. “We wanted it to be something completely unique, like a magazine that was a smart read for people who love film.” TCM from the get-go has also shelled out to license movies from other studios and sources. “We wanted to lay claim to offering the best mix of classic movies — with a definition of ‘classic’ as something that was really good, not by a chronological time period,” Siegel says. “To do that we had to have more than just the movies we owned.”

Robert Osborne was Siegel’s first choice to be the face of TCM as its principal host. Siegel had tried to hire Osborne a few years before when Siegel was working at AMC, but his recruiting effort was blocked by a management turf war. Osborne, a former actor turned columnist and Hollywood historian, set the perfect tone for TCM. He remained with the channel until he retired in 2016, the year before he died, at age 84.

“We put together a team of people who lived, ate and breathed classic movies,” Siegel says. “Robert was a definitive expert on classic movies.”

Osborne and Ted Turner did the honors in Times Square when the network held its launch event, complete with an oversize switch to pull when the channel went live at 7:10 p.m. ET. The April 14, 1994, date was timed to sync with the 100th anniversary of the first commercial exhibition of a motion picture in the U.S. — a nickelodeon theater in Times Square playing a Thomas Edison-produced Kinetoscope production.

Osborne launched the channel with a three-minute introduction, explaining TCM’s mission to present “the finest films ever made, 24 hours a day.” A nine-minute Chuck Workman documentary titled “100 Years at the Movies” played, followed by “Gone With the Wind.”

Writer-producer Ben Mankiewicz was only the second person to serve as TCM host when he signed on with the channel in 2003. He’s now the main primetime host, although he shares duties with Dave Karger and Alicia Malone. Mankiewicz credits Osborne’s style — a mix of scholarly knowledge and a fan’s enthusiasm for obscure gems and long-forgotten shorts — for allowing TCM to establish a “meaningful connection” with viewers.

“Context and curation is what we’re known for. We’ve never programmed the channel with ratings in mind. If we did, we wouldn’t be playing silent films or 1930s black-and-white movies.”
Charlie Tabesh

“It’s the only fan-driven network like this on television,” says Mankiewicz, who brings a Hollywood pedigree as part of the Mankiewicz clan of writers. (His grandfather, Herman Mankiewicz, wrote “Citizen Kane.”) “It is so satisfying to be part of that connection,” Mankiewicz says. “I’ve had discussions with some of the biggest artists in this business, who tell me that the channel is always on somewhere in their house.”

The TCM vault is stocked with so many thousands of titles and obscurities that even 25 years later, “detective work” is still required to keep on top of everything there is to offer, according to Tabesh. To wit, eight 1930s titles from the RKO days recently surfaced that have never played on the channel. To Tabesh, that’s a big score.

“Even when you think you’ve gone through everything, you start finding things,” he says.

One of the biggest challenges in recent years has been grappling with the march of time and changing cultural attitudes and social norms. There are plenty of films with material that is viewed through a contemporary lens as at worst offensive or unenlightened. Notable examples are the depiction of slavery in “Gone With the Wind” and the use of blackface in films of the 1920s and ’30s.

TCM has sought to tackle some of these issues with its original documentary series and themed programming initiatives such as the “Race and Hollywood” series presented by African-American film historian Donald Bogle. As a mirror of the times in which they were made, movies offer a kind of road map to how attitudes evolve.

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic “The Birth of a Nation” is a landmark film, but it presents a horrifyingly racist view of African-American life in the post-Civil War era. TCM runs “The Birth of a Nation” and movies with similar backgrounds, but only with appropriate introduction, context and, when necessary, warnings to viewers.

“We don’t want to deny history. We don’t want to pretend that certain movies were never made,” Tabesh says. “We want to educate.”

Mankiewicz says considerations about how to handle problematic material, particularly in important works like “Gone With the Wind,” are part and parcel of the mandate to help audiences’ frame their viewing experience.

“We care about putting these movies in the context of their times. We tell you that this would never get made in 2019,” Mankiewicz says. “This is when the job is most challenging and most exciting.”

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