Update: Big Changes at Turner Broadcasting – Will They Affect TCM?

osborneUPDATE 8/29/14 9 a.m. (ET) 

The departures are beginning at Turner, with the announcement that TNT, TBS and TCM programming chief Michael Wright would be leaving the company after a decade.

Original Post – 8/27/14

According to Nielsen, the average U.S. household receives 189 TV channels, but regularly watches only 17 of them. If you’re an Old Movie Weirdo, however, that number may be closer to one: Turner Classic Movies.

TCM is the only U.S. TV channel airing classic films 24 hours per day, uncut, commercial-free, and in their original, theatrical aspect ratio. As such, viewers (like this one) tend to support the 20-year-old network with near-religious zealotry. And TCM returns the favor, connecting with audience members through an annual film festival, cruise, sightseeing bus tours, monthly magazine, specialty home video releases, original documentaries, and brilliantly curated programming, which has extended from a single, linear channel to multiple streaming and on-demand options.

For millions of loyal viewers, the people who work at TCM are like members of an extended family of film lovers. Sadly, that family is about to get smaller.

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 12.57.09 AMOn Tuesday, TCM parent Turner Broadcasting offered a buyout to approximately six percent of U.S. employees, the first in the company’s 44-year history. While the “Voluntary Separation Program” for employees 55 and older with more than ten years of service was only offered to approximately 600 members of the company’s 9,000-member U.S. workforce, it’s just the first step in a company-wide cost-cutting initiative that is expected to yield extensive layoffs.

First announced by CEO John Martin on June 2, the “Turner 2020” initiative seeks to reduce spending and maximize growth and profitability, leading up to the 50th anniversary of the company a little more than five years from now. Layoffs throughout Turner’s more than 700 departments were only suggested in Martin’s initial communication, but they were confirmed in his follow-up memo on August 19:

“Division leaders now are reviewing the working groups’ reports on their respective areas of oversight. Over the coming weeks, they will work with me to finalize the organizational changes we will implement. Our plan is to begin communicating in the next two months both general and specific changes we will make to structures, models and roles,” Martin wrote.

In case you didn’t get his point, the next sentence sealed the fate of an as-yet-undetermined number of Turner employees:

“We’ll start 2015 a more streamlined, nimble and efficient company…”

When your boss starts talking about streamlining, it’s time to start packing your things.

So, how many Turner staffers will be cut? Speculation varied wildly on Tuesday, but Rodney Ho of the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution estimates that the final tally could be as much as 15 to 20 percent of the company, with an aggregate loss of as many as 2,000 employees.

“(T)his is causing some significant angst and concern among employees,” he added, stating the obvious.

twIronically, “Turner 2020″ was planned long before Fox’s recent, much-publicized attempt to acquire Turner parent Time Warner, which made itself a takeover target (intentionally or otherwise) with the recent spinoffs of Time Inc. and Time Warner Cable. But Rupert Murdoch’s $85 per share offer, roundly rejected by Time Warner’s board, only puts more pressure on the company to increase shareholder value. The stock closed Tuesday at $76.98, up nearly $7 since Murdoch’s offer was first revealed on July 16. (21st Century Fox formally withdrew the proposal on August 6.)

Industry-wide, audience fragmentation is rampant, production and licensing costs are up, and expected mergers among cable and satellite providers – Time Warner Cable/Comcast and AT&T/DirecTV – are expected to reduce leverage in network carriage fee negotiations. While TNT is one of the most expensive channels for basic cable subscribers – and still one of the most profitable – it lacks a signature show with the channel-making buzz of Mad MenBreaking Bad, or The Walking Dead (all coincidentally on AMC, a channel that kicked classic films to the curb and dramatically increased its audience and profitability). Ratings are down at TNT, TBS, and CNN, and Turner is facing the expiration of its NBA deal in 2016, with the price expected to double from the $930 million annual license fee currently being split between Disney’s ESPN and Turner. If the new contact matches the previous in duration (8 years), the NBA could slam dunk their cable partners for $15-16 billion.

So how will all of this affect TCM? Hopefully, not substantially, considering the channel has a relatively small full-time staff and is known to be a lean and efficiently run organization. Ironically, much of the mainstream reporting on Tuesday didn’t even acknowledge TCM’s existence, likely owing to the channel’s lack of advertising revenue and minor impact on the bottom line. TCM may be able to continue to fly below the radar, but with Turner’s announced, company-wide focus on “monetization,” longtime viewers (like this one) can’t help but wonder if the network’s commercial-free days may be numbered.

“We’ve never had plans to add commercials; I think it’s actually written into some of our affiliate agreements,” V.P. of Programming Charlie Tabesh said at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival. “We’re not trying to reach a broad audience. We’re not trying to maximize the demo. We’re not trying to get the 18-34, whatever it is. There’s none of that that’s considered at all.”

Hopefully those plans haven’t changed.

To read both the Martin memos, click here. Warning: there’s enough corporate speak to choke Francis the Talking Mule.


About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in Slate.com and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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21 Responses to Update: Big Changes at Turner Broadcasting – Will They Affect TCM?

  1. You’ve got me worrying now, Will. Having read all this, I seriously hope that they’re not going to start messing around with TCM’s structure or programming. I don’t even want to hear the word “commercials” mentioned … ugh.

    • Gartg says:

      I echo your sentiment completely! I almost get sick to my stomach thinking about commercials inserted in between my TCM classic movies.

  2. Jason O. Logan says:

    I think the only real change at TCM will be Robert Osborne ceding more and more face time to Ben Mank which is going to be more a natural change than any demands from on high.

  3. Sandy F. says:

    I’m worried also. TCM is really the only refuge for classic movie fans who like to watch their films without commercial interruption. I just hope TCM is allowed to carry on in their present incarnation.

  4. Commercials would be the end of TCM. Period. But I don’t believe that will happen. As it is, TCM is good bait for cable subscribers. I first discovered TCM not because of classic movies, but because of no commercials. The classic movie fandom came second.

  5. I was wondering about changes to TCM when I read about this new “streamlining”. Like you, I hope TCM will be able to “fly below the radar” and remain unaffected.

  6. Shari Jones says:

    I would donate or pay a monthly charge for TCM to prevent any changes. If it does come to commercials I hope they require advertisers to use vintage ads of their products and/or make them appear vintage, keeping in the spirit of the channel.

  7. This honestly doesn’t sound good, certainly not for the future of a cable channel that focuses on a niche market that doesn’t target the young. I wonder if TCM could go the way of AMC; or if Turner could ‘compromise’ by wrapping TCM in with another channel or another programming format that broadcasts more contemporary films (that seems to be what the Fox movie channel did). I even wonder about the future of cable itself. My impression is that the Internet is, in effect, taking over – you can not only stream movies but also tv shows on sites like Hulu, so why subscribe to cable at all and deal with its commercials (which you get on most cable stations even though you’re already paying for the service)?

    • Garth says:

      I recall when AMC started playing commercials back in 2002. I stopped watching the channel and haven’t to this day. Now, with TCM, I will totally be upset and will not be able to get over. Same thing if Osborne leaves us.

  8. There was a line in a one-act play I saw years ago – “They find out what you like and then they take it away.”

  9. Kelly says:

    I am one of those younger viewers. What am I chopped liver?

    Yeah I think TCM is going the way of AMC. It just seems they’re getting there already, not having classic movies lately. It seems they’re going into the 2000’s. This past August was okay on Star of the day, but I’ve seen the better day of Turner Classic movies. I hate to say this, but I think we’re seeing TCM turning into AMC.

    Hey even getTV and Movies TV Network has commercials, but they still show classic movies.

  10. tracym51 says:

    Reblogged this on tracym51 and commented:
    I used to watch TCM here in Canada awhile ago when Shaw Cable used to run it, plus a few other channels, hope Turner doesn’t turn the network into another AMC.

  11. Kelly says:

    Bad news is the truth about the ratings and I hear the NBA is going to tell Turner, “carry these games or else we go to ESPN or Fox Sports or new Time Warner cable channel that shows Dodgers game here in LA area” (which might get Time Warner busted by the FCC – some hanky panky being reported on that deal).

    I hate to say this but I think TCM may go the way of AMC. They may have to show commercials, sad to report.

  12. uatu says:

    I see a split strategy occuring;

    A TCM that’ll be structured like hbo. $10-15/month premium subscription that is commercial free with an expanded library.

    And a TCM that turns into AMC.

    Between Amazon, torrents, and knowledge sites like this, and imdb – I can pretty much structure my classic viewing experience on my computer without TCM (i watch less and less of it). I got into TCM in my mid twenties, and in my late twenties now, I am a huge TCM evangelist in my social circle (even emailing ideas to charlie and stephanie in terms of ways to drive engagement for younger audiences that doesn’t depend on breaking the ethos of tcm).

    But a lot of this is driven by sports rights costs – espn canned 500+ people last year due to rising sports rights programming costs.

  13. Pingback: 2015 TCM Film Festival Dates Announced | cinematically insane

  14. Pingback: Job Cuts Announced at TCM Parent Turner Broadcasting | cinematically insane

  15. Alphonsus Jr. says:

    The programming has indeed changed. It’s now infected with the plague of political correctness.

  16. Pingback: TCM Survives Turner Layoffs, Announces New G.M. | cinematically insane

  17. MB says:

    I know I’m late to the game, but I wanted to give TCM a chance. However, after watching TCM through the transition period, I can say with absolute certainty……. I HATE the new programming, and I cannot believe that Robert Osborne is on board with the changes. I realize TCM may be trying to reach a more diverse audience, but who in the world would classify movies from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s as classics? I have cable for one reason….TCM. But now, it would be all too easy to drop cable all together. I am more than disappointed in the movie lineup. I’ve tried to watch it, but I may as well be watching Hulu or Netflix or AMC. This was a HUGE mistake for TCM.

    Sayonara, TCM, it was fun while it lasted, but you have broken trust with your loyal viewers.

  18. samalabear says:

    I have been in heaven lately with YouTube. Just about everything that I used to watch on TCM is now on YouTube and beautiful, beautiful copies. The movies that I really want to own are not out on DVD, or were only out once in a limited edition, and they were never shown on TCM. Owed to the fact that the only way for me to get TCM was via the silver package on cable, and that portion of my bill went up to $124 a month. I literally watched maybe 6 channels regularly. Fortunately many of the shows eventually end up with Netflix.

    I realized, however, that the month I canceled the cable TV portion of my bill — or as much I could, because the snakes at my company insist on my having some TV in order to get decent speed on my internet connection (which I need because of some huge work file downloads) — however, i realized I hadn’t watched TCM in six months. I had increasingly been watching some incredible films on YouTube — really, really terrific old English films — films I had also seen when younger but hadn’t seen since then, and never on TCM, and here they are in all their beauty now on YouTube.

    Believe me, I love what TCM has done for film. The education has been great. When Ted turned from “colorizing” (yikes!) films to restoring it was the best thing that ever happened, and then TCM. But more and more people are having to cut out cable TV, not necessarily because they want to, but because it is insane. Here’s the breakdown for me since 2013 for my bill: $151 in 2013, jumped to $181 in 2014, January 2015 jumped to $219 a month. That was it for me.

    I am also commercial phobic and if a channel has commercials that’s it, don’t need to watch it.

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