A World Without Turner Classic Movies

If TCM doesn't last under David Zaslav, we lose much more than just a television channel.
Turner Classic Movies

I still remember the first movie I ever watched on Turner Classic Movies. Robert Osborne introduced I’ll Be Seeing You starring Ginger Rogers and Shirley Temple. I didn’t know who the two actresses were at the time, but Osborne talked with so much passion and excitement about them that I decided to watch this black-and-white movie to find out what made them so great. I instantly fell in love with the film and how old movies made me feel, something I still return to TCM for today. With the recent threat of losing TCM thanks to a round of firing foundational staff, people should know just how important the channel is.

Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Martin Scorsese have claimed to have convinced Warner Bros. Discovery executive David Zaslav that TCM is important, but who knows if this is instead just another one of the company’s attempts to squash the outcry that immediately followed letting go of seasoned programmer Charles Tabesh before having him rehired days later. Hopefully, Spielberg, Scorsese, and Anderson are right and their leverage as celebrities worked, but the experiences of regular viewers shouldn’t be ignored when the possibility of losing TCM is still real.

Growing up in West Virginia, I didn’t have access to a lot of ways to watch anything but the blockbusters that played in the closest theaters 45 minutes away. Unreliable wifi made watching anything online difficult, but television was something everyone I knew had no matter how far into the woods their house was. That’s why TCM felt like it reached everywhere and everyone.

When I moved to Pittsburgh then New York City and back again, TCM followed me and became the constant that I could talk to anyone about. From the old ladies at the libraries where I work to the seasoned film critics I met living in New York, people appreciated that TCM taught them new things about old movies at home. I’ve connected with people over the internet because of TCM. I’ve had people read articles about old movies thanks to TCM.

So many film writers and filmmakers have the same kind of experience as me, finding TCM and opening a never-ending world of old films, and have written about them in defense of the channel. When thinking of the risk of losing TCM, I think about the risk of losing that common ground that people of all socioeconomic or educational backgrounds have when it comes to movies. There are so few things that bind people from rural states to those of big cities anymore, but TCM does that.

A major reason why TCM feels so universal is its medium of television. Even with the ways we watch television changing so quickly, TCM has been able to straddle streaming and cable well. It still plays as originally intended in 1994, without commercials and with introductions or commentary by hosts on television. Watching on the TCM app gives you a similar experience. You can watch live and if you choose to watch on demand, you have to watch the host introduction first. If we lose TCM, we lose a channel that bridges the gap between streaming and cable television.

Exclusively streaming platforms leave out so many people, despite being told that everything and everyone is preferring streaming these days. Rural Americans like those I grew up with don’t get to switch over to streaming as easily as people with better access to internet. Older people I help in libraries are not ditching their cable TV as quickly as more tech-savvy younger generations. Forgetting those kinds of people and focusing solely on streaming would be leaving out a much larger population than many people consider when it comes to access to film history.

As someone who studied film in college and writes about it professionally, TCM remains the best education I’ve ever had, largely due to its accessibility. I felt terrified to make a mistake in front of film students and professors, to not know a movie I should have already seen when I was a student. Hosts like Alicia Malone and Ben Mankiewicz are knowledgeable without being condescending. All of the TCM hosts have truly felt like friends telling you about movies they love when visiting your home and that is such a treasure.

Curated themes and highlights on specific movie stars are a great jumping off point that never claim to be exhaustive. It’s not something an algorithm can achieve. That’s why losing Tabesh was a code-red alarm for anyone who cares about TCM. Curation takes a wealth of knowledge of movies, but not just knowing a bunch of titles that have been said to be similar, but the movies that haven’t been associated together before. Real programming makes you see movies you’ve seen already differently when curated with other movies and TCM has done that time and again. It’s great that three star filmmakers are on board with curating for the channel now, but the message has been sent. It’s not labor worth paying for, which is a huge loss for the channel and viewers everywhere.

No matter who you are or how much you know about movies, you can learn something when watching a movie on TCM. It’s never elitist or demeaning in the way a lot of film theory and writing can be. Learning about movies doesn’t have to be highbrow and as academic as possible. It really can be as easy as hearing actors talk about other stars in between movies, like Paul Newman talking about Elizabeth Taylor. Film history can be as personal as Robert Osborne talking about walking out of A Clockwork Orange after seeing the impression of Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain only to watch it later again and love it. “The movie doesn’t change, but we do,” he said in one of his host intros for the movie. If Robert Osborne can admit to changing his mind on a movie so lauded as a classic, then it’s okay if we don’t understand a movie on the first watch. Losing TCM means losing the most down-to-earth way to talk about film. It’s also a consistent resource for people who have learned so much about movies already but could always know more. There will never be a day when I have seen every movie TCM shows and that’s exhilarating.

I’d be losing so much if TCM was dissolved, but I worry most for people who don’t know the other ways of learning about film history or watching old movies. Despite there being more ways to access movies online, the labor you have to do just to find older films on prominent streaming services would turn away a new viewer like I once was. As long as TCM is around young people, no matter where they’re from, will have easy access to old movies and the kind of context they need when learning about history to care about it and spark a lifelong interest.

Cynical people may say the young people won’t care about TCM or old movies, but working in a library with kids everyday, I know they’re still seeking out the same things that have captivated kids of previous generations. They just don’t know until they have access to it. Older films are being preserved, but they will be undervalued or even forgotten if not accessible to the public. I hope the value that TCM has to all kinds of Americans can be just as convincing as a Zoom call with Scorsese, but only time will tell.

Emily Kubincanek: Emily Kubincanek is a Senior Contributor for Film School Rejects and resident classic Hollywood fan. When she's not writing about old films, she works as a librarian and film archivist. You can find her tweeting about Cary Grant and hockey here: @emilykub_