Skip to content
We’ll Always Have Turner Classic Movies … or Will We?
Go to my account

We’ll Always Have Turner Classic Movies … or Will We?

Why attacks on the classic film channel amount to more than a hill of beans.

Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa in "The Bridge on the River Kwai." (Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

What is the value of a cable channel in the year 2023? To judge by the 2.3 million cable subscribers who cut the cord last quarter, this is hardly a theoretical question. It is also a question evidently preoccupying David Zaslav, the controversial CEO now running Warner Bros. Discovery. Fresh off of stripping HBO’s name (and much of its content) from its signature streaming service, Zaslav raised more hackles in June by firing top executives at Turner Classic Movies, Warner’s beloved channel for classic film programming. Given Zaslav’s dismal track record with past executive hires, and his habit of shelving films for tax write-offs, it was safe to assume that TCM would become his next victim.

Thankfully, TCM has received a stay of execution for now. No less a cinematic triumvirate than Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson staged an “emergency call” with Zaslav to express their displeasure and secure guarantees for TCM’s future. Under the terms of the deal, longtime TCM programmer Charles Tabesh will return to the network, oversight will be transferred to Warner Bros. Pictures execs, and the three filmmakers will remain actively involved, on-screen and off, as curators and advocates for TCM.

It sounds like a Hollywood ending, but the celebration may be premature. In an age of algorithmically generated “content,” TCM has been an outlier focused on curation and conservation of film history. Those values are profoundly under siege, buffeted by market pressures and cultural forces that threaten TCM’s continued existence. If the channel is to survive, it will take more than a high-profile directorial intervention—it will take an audience willing to declare itself for those values, too.

Every TCM fan has an origin story. Mine began, I think, soon after seeing Star Wars as an impressionable 6-year-old. Thrilled by the movie as a whole, I was especially taken with the quiet gravitas of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi—and with some parental encouragement, began to explore his earlier filmography. 

It was on TCM that I saw Guinness’ Oscar-winning turn in The Bridge on the River Kwai, on TCM that I sought out Guinness rarities like the comedic whodunnit Murder by Death. Tuning into channel 70 became a mainstay of hot summer nights in front of our family TV, or visits to my Grandma’s house in Rochester, New York. There was a certain guarantee of quality in whatever was airing on TCM. We knew the channel would present films in their original format, commercial-free, and bookended by the late Robert Osborne—the classy film host whose words put films in context and sent me down rabbit holes to explore other work by the same director or actor.     

TCM was at once a comforting destination and a gateway into film history. It facilitated for viewers both a confidence in the channel’s curation and the thrill of individual discovery. Prime time was for the established classics, but in the wee hours you could find overlooked gems. In high school, as my film habit really got serious, I’d scour the TCM schedules for lesser-known works by my favorite directors, movies like John Ford’s 7 Women or François Truffaut’s The Soft Skin, which you couldn’t find elsewhere. Without access to Tivo, my TV’s programmable VCR was my tool of choice. Somewhere on the third floor of my childhood home lies a stack of rewritable VHS tapes that tells the tale.       

By contrast, does anyone have fond memories of scrolling through Netflix’s sea of content? Or browsing its algorithmically generated micro-categories?

Disruptive streamers like Netflix, of course, explain part of TCM’s trouble. But so does the longstanding practice of cable “bundling,” a market distortion that makes it impossible for customers to pay only for the channels they want. With perverse market incentives, it’s no wonder that streaming has driven a major trend toward cord-cutting, with channels like TCM suffering as a result.

Unfortunately, the streaming wars are now tending toward further consolidation, replicating the worst practices of cable. The new Max streaming app, for example, lumps in trashy reality shows alongside HBO originals and classic films, embodying a tendency (backed by Zaslav) of accumulating masses of undifferentiated “content.” As Martin Scorsese lamented in a 2021 Harper’s essay, “‘Content’ became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode.”

For film history to survive, we need institutions like TCM to act as stewards and curators, not just content mills. Thankfully, a few examples from the recent past show how this mission can be preserved.   

One is the Criterion Channel, a streaming service spun off from the physical media company after the shuttering of its predecessor FilmStruck in 2018. FilmStruck was itself a TCM-Criterion partnership before becoming the victim of corporate consolidation at Warner—dismissed by the suits as a “niche service” whose savings would be redirected “back into our collective portfolios.” Thankfully, the Criterion Channel was soon established as its successor, offering thoughtful film curation within the convenience of a streaming app. If TCM should fall, God forbid, the Criterion Channel offers a promising model for its future.   

Second, TCM’s own history shows how corporate mismanagement of film history can be redressed by popular outcry. Ted Turner, the network’s founder and namesake, was once the leading advocate of colorizing old movies, peddling bastardized color versions of It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca for TV broadcasts. The trend was so adamantly opposed by leading directors and critics—especially the late Roger Ebert—that Turner abandoned the project and founded a network dedicated to showing films in their original format.   

Perhaps, then, even David Zaslav can learn not to mess with a winning formula. For almost 30 years, TCM has been the gold standard for presenting classic films on television, helping to share and preserve an art form as American as jazz or baseball. That is a heritage worth celebrating—and conserving. 

Sean Keeley is a contributing editor of American Purpose.