Turner Classic Movies is getting an unexpected present for their twentieth birthday: competition.
On February 3, Sony Pictures Television launched getTV, a broadcast television network devoted exclusively to classic film from the 1930s through the 1960s. At launch, the channel is available in 44 percent of U.S. television households, with affiliates in 24 markets, including 17 of the top 20.
And listen up, cord-cutters! getTV is available for free, over-the-air, just like TV used to be. I was able to get a crystal clear signal in New York City on my fancy new flat screen using a $20 set of rabbit ears from Radio Shack. And for you millionaires who can still afford cable, getTV is carried by providers in New York, Los Angeles, and most other markets where there the network has a broadcast affiliate. Time Warner Cable in New York City just added getTV this week, which marks the first time in history they’ve done anything for me without an angry phone call, or threats to throw the cable box off my 9th-floor balcony.
Initially at launch, getTV is programmed primarily with more than 3,500 films from Sony’s Columbia Pictures library and includes an inventive mix of the familiar, like HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (1941), BORN YESTERDAY (1950) and PAL JOEY (1957), and the delightfully obscure. I’ve watched the channel for two weeks now, and I’ve been thrilled to see plenty of titles from the ’30s, including VIRTUE (1932) with Carole Lombard and Pat O’Brien, and IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK (1935) and MORE THAN A SECRETARY (1936) with Jean Arthur. And the March schedule looks equally promising, with films featuring Humphrey Bogart, Jean Harlow, and the Three Stooges (sadly, not all in the same movie), a 70th anniversary presentation of COVER GIRL (1944) with Gene Kelly (on March 30), and airings of the CRIME DOCTOR mysteries (1943-49) with Warner Baxter on Thursday nights, during primetime.
At this point, if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “The CRIME DOCTOR in primetime on a broadcast TV channel? This is too good to be true.” And of course, like with any good thing, there’s a catch. getTV is an advertiser supported digital sub-channel, which means they air commercials (but thankfully no infomercials for bizarre fitness products or blankets with sleeves). And because the network is broadcasting a 4:3 standard definition signal, I’ve noticed a few cropped transfers of widescreen films in the programming mix. But I’m willing to give any channel that airs old movies 24/7 the benefit of the doubt – particularly one that has debuted as effectively as getTV has.
But I know you have questions, as I did, about exactly what we’re getting with getTV. So I packed up my old movie weirdo bag and took the Yellow Brick Road out to Culver City, California to chat with Jeff Meier, getTV’s senior vice-president of programming. We spoke last week in his office on the Sony Pictures Lot, which classic film fans may know better as the former MGM Studio. The following is an edited transcript.
WILL McKINLEY: You’re programming a classic film network on a site many people consider hallowed ground. Does that inspire you?
JEFF MEIER: We’re a stone’s throw from “We’re off to see the Wizard.” I’m excited about that every day. That’s one of the greatest things about this job, just being here on the lot and feeling that all around you, both MGM and Columbia Pictures’ history.
WM: The films on getTV are almost all from the Sony library, correct?
JM: At launch, we’ve started with the Sony library, however, we are currently in talks with the other major studios about licensing their films.
WM: So what is driving getTV? Is it a creative concept? The contents of a library? Awareness of broadcast TV standards?
JM: What we’ve loved about putting this channel together is that all these things have come together. The primary goal you want from any channel is something that’s going to create a world that viewers want to be part of. People are coming to the channel and then exploring what’s on our schedule. It’s making the decision to watch a channel, rather than just a film. You feel like you’re joining a club, or finding a channel that can be a backdrop to your day.
WM: There’s always a huge debate among fans regarding the definition of “classic film.”
JM: We’ve decided here that our starting point is movies from the 1930s through the ‘60s. We program pre-Woodstock movies, in feeling. There are ‘60s movies that are a little bit over the edge, and those are not the movies we want to feature at this time.
WM: And once you get past the era of the Motion Picture Production Code, you potentially have to edit to meet broadcast standards.
JM: We are trying not to get into the zone of editing. We’re trying to present the whole movie, but at the same time, we are on broadcast TV, which has tighter restrictions than cable, and tighter rules in terms of community standards. And we’re not editing films for time. So if something runs from 10 a.m. until 12:40 p.m., that’s when the next movie is going to start.
WM: What about silent films?
JM: I won’t say never, but I haven’t been focusing on silent movies at the moment.
WM: Has the concept of a host ever been addressed?
JM: We have discussed the possibility of a host. We want to make sure we utilize a host to complement our programming and embody our Channel’s personality.
WM: Are you competing with TCM?
JM: Turner Classic Movies is great at what they do. But there is really only one channel doing that specific zone of movies. We’ve been witnessing since our launch that the viewers are welcoming us into their homes. So yes, there is room for a new classic film channel.
WM: In your mind, what is the demographic for getTV?
JM: I think the demo for this channel is, at its core, Baby Boomers who maybe remember some of the movies or remember watching them on TV when they were kids, or watching them with their parents. I think there is a hunger within that audience to expose the movies to younger generations. We’ve had parents say that they’ve had their kids watching with them. It’s clearly something that older viewers will respond to.
WM: You’re broadcasting a 4:3 standard definition signal. For movies from the ‘30s through the early ‘50s, that will work fine, in terms of aspect ratio. What about later, widescreen films?
JM: Aspect ratio is always a big concern with viewers. What we would say is, to the best of our ability, and with the best intentions, we’re trying to get it right. We are SD and there are going to be instances where the only SD version of a movie that is available to us, without having to go through a whole restoration, may be something that’s modified in some way. To the best of our ability, we’re trying to do things in the way the fans would want to watch their favorite films.
WM: Are you doing the day-to-day programming of the channel?
JM: I work with my team to collectively choose the movies and then figure out the order to put them in. We take extra steps to feel like we’re curating great moments. Our programming team is consistently brainstorming programming stunts to ensure our viewers have the best possible movies that month.
WM: About how many movies do you air each month?
JM: On average, it is about 85 to 90 movies per month.
WM: So some titles air more than once.
JM: What we’re trying to do is bring a pay cable model to broadcast TV, in a couple ways. On any pay cable channel you’ve got your movies of the month and they air five or six times. So you get multiple chances to see it. We, too, are rebroadcasting our movies, however, we don’t want to frustrate our viewers in seeing a program that they’ve seen three days earlier. We try to repeat our movies in different day parts and sequences to cast a wider net of viewing opportunities for our audience.
WM: Jack Lemmon was your Star of the Month in February with nine titles, all Columbia releases. Is there a finite universe of people who are big enough names for that, and for whom you have enough titles for in the library?
JM: We’re thinking of it as a “theme of the month.” The Jack Lemmon theme celebrates a particular star. In March we’re celebrating The Crime Doctor with Warner Baxter. In April we’re doing William Holden and in May we’re doing Frank Capra. Every Friday night we have a double or triple feature of a specific star. We have this section in the afternoon called Afternoon Delight that we’re trying to make a little bit more female. We’ve got Westerns on Saturday. It’s also going to be a lot of learning. If we’re able to get feedback on time slots and movies from viewers, we’ll incorporate that into our learning for the next round.
WM: So you’re open to feedback? That’s good, because you’ll definitely be getting it.
JM: People are sending in emails to the website. We have a Facebook page and a lot of people are commenting. We’re getting passionate response from the viewers to the programming. They know their stuff.
Updated: 5/18/14 7:30 p.m.
Since launching on February 3, getTV has added affiliates and is now available in 35 markets, covering more than 48 percent of all U.S. television households. New markets added include Seattle, Tulsa, and Charlotte, with Jacksonville to come this summer. For a complete list of affiliates, click here.