The first of those ramps is open for business, as the 21-year-old network today announced its new tagline: “Let’s Movie.” The promotional campaign, which officially launches September 1, seeks to “attract an even broader audience of movie fans” through advertising on sister Turner networks and websites, electronic billboards in New York and Atlanta, and in movie theaters nationwide. There will also be an expanded social media presence culminating with a “holiday” on Saturday, September 19, when fans are encouraged to watch films communally and share their experiences using the #LetsMovie hashtag. (No word yet on whether TCM will ask your boss for the day off.)
TCM also released a slick new promotional ad designed to position the network as the “last standing, great movie-lover destination” (take that AMC!) In the minute-long spot, demographically diverse family members come together to watch THE WIZARD OF OZ, THE SEARCHERS, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, JAWS, BULLITT, BEN-HUR and CASABLANCA.
Despite the fact that the ad only features films released between 1939 and 1974, and that no mention of programming changes was made in TCM’s press release, some viewers expressed concern that the initiative would lead to a shift in on-air content. Dorian and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz took to Twitter in an effort to allay the fears of a devoutly loyal fanbase, still skittish from the transition of American Movie Classics to the Breaking Bad channel.
“Same great programming mix, same uncut and commercial free! Just inviting more folks to the network,” Dorian added.
End of story, right? Sort of.
To understand what’s happening at TCM we need to go back to last fall, when a company-wide cost-cutting initiative hit Turner Broadcasting. TCM lost approximately 15 staffers to layoffs and buyouts – far fewer than other Turner networks, but still a tragedy (a staff of approximately 45 remains). Following the restructuring, TCM emerged as a separate and autonomous entity within Turner and gained a new general manager, Dorian, with a mission to “grow” the brand.
A 15-year Turner veteran, Dorian had previously led the rebranding of TNT in 2000 and TBS in 2004, as well as the re-launch of Court TV as truTV in 2007, so some change in the channel’s identity was to be expected. That the change did not involve the addition of commercials – as happened at the previously ad-free Turner network Boomerang – was (and continues to be) welcome news.
“NO COMMERCIALS. EVER. EVER. EVER. EVER,” Ben Mankiewicz assured fans today, luring at least one or two off the digital ledge.
And TCM Senior VP of Programming Charles Tabesh was even more definitive at 2013 TCMFF.
“When AMC went commercial many years ago, the cable affiliates freaked out, because they were getting a lot of complaints from subscribers and they wanted to make sure that TCM never added commercials,” he said. “We’ve never had plans to add commercials. I think it’s actually written into some of our affiliate agreements.”
Thus, Dorian’s challenge: to increase profitability at America’s only remaining commercial-free basic cable movie network without the addition of on-air advertising revenue. The answer (at least in part): an evolving interpretation of “classic.”
We can debate the definition of classic until Buster Keaton’s cow from GO WEST comes home – and many fans do, practically daily, on TCM’s various social media outlets. While many diehards prefer their classics of an older, black-and-white vintage, others don’t. And, although the question is asked at the TCM Film Fest in Hollywood every single year, good luck getting a firm answer out of a staffer.
“There is no cutoff,” Tabesh said at the last TCMFF. “In the right context.”
A shift in TCM’s programming has been feared for years and, to some extent, is actually happening – but not in a way that affects the average viewer. A handful of more “contemporary” films were featured at the recent TCMFF, and TCM’s sightseeing bus tours (launched in New York in 2013 and Los Angeles in 2014) include frequent references to post-Studio Era films (L.A. far more so than NYC). TCM’s Fathom Events screening series (launched in 2012) also featured two films from the mid-to-late 1970s this summer: JAWS (1974) in June and a singalong edition of GREASE (1978) in August.
For the most part, this has been a perfect solution: fans can simply choose to opt out, based on personal taste. And those who have a deep and abiding hatred for GREASE (ahem) can save their money for upcoming TCM/Fathom screenings like PSYCHO (1960), DRACULA (1931), ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) and MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947).
To the frustration of some strict classic film constructionists, there has also been a subtle addition of newer movies to the on-air schedule, as well. But those films have largely aired in the overnight hours, due to TCM’s status on the basic cable tier.
“Most basic cable networks show edited versions. We won’t do that,” Tabesh said at TCMFF in 2013. “But the price we pay for that is, if there are a lot of F-words or nudity we have to play it later at night: after 10 p.m. West Coast time, which is 1 a.m. in New York. That’s really when we can get away with a lot more.”
Where the network has no limitations is on-line, where films that don’t meet broadcast standards are available on-demand on the excellent Watch TCM app. And this leads me to what I believe is the end-game for TCM and why the network’s branding now positions it as a destination for “great” movies rather than “old” movies: a standalone, subscription streaming service
“We have absolutely nothing to announce, no specific plans,” Dorian told me at the recent Film Festival. “But, like every TV brand, we’ve got to look at the future and new technologies and give people what they want.”
TCM has already dipped their toe into streaming waters with their participation in DISH Network’s Sling TV, which allows subscribers to watch the network as part of a so-called “skinny bundle” of channels for just $25 per month. But the ability to subscribe to TCM directly, without committing to other channels, is on the horizon.
As cable and satellite subscribers cut the cord in record numbers, and Netflix continues to kick older films to the curb, TCM has a huge business opportunity in streaming. If the network brings a collection of “great” films from all eras direct to your home on-demand with expert curation, will you mind? And if expanding the parameters of “classic” attracts new paying customers of all ages to that service, will you be opposed? Finally, if a successful subscription VOD service allows TCM to keep their olde fashioned cable channel in business, without commercials, and consistently airing films from all eras, won’t you be happy? I sure will be, particularly because I’ll have dozens of other old movies to choose from on-demand if TCM happens to be airing something I don’t like.
In short (okay, not really, but I had a lot to say): this is great news for film fans of all tastes, but most particularly for classic movie purists who believe strongly in the importance of a high profile national venue for the films we love.
TCM may have hit a bit of a speed bump on their on-ramp today, but the destination is the same as ever. And I’m looking forward to the ride.