The serendipity of randomly catching a movie on TCM now comes with an additional price tag
Earlier this month, Comcast quietly pulled Turner Classic Movies from its basic cable subscription, making the channel available only to TV viewers who pay an additional fee to subscribe Comcast’s Sports Entertainment Package.
Comcast did not respond to an inquiry from the Tribune, but on its website it does provide some background on the decision: “Viewership of TCM is low, as over 90% of our customers watch less than two movies per month. Given this, we decided to move TCM to the Sports Entertainment Package, which will help us manage programming costs that are passed on to our customers.”
You can take that at face value. (TCM also declined to comment.) Or you can wonder, as TV reporter Tyler Hersko did at IndieWire, if there’s something else at play. Namely, the launch of competing streaming services and the trend among media companies to “take back” their content.
TCM is owned by WarnerMedia, which is gearing up to launch HBO Max where (in theory) the TCM library will be available to subscribers.
Comcast, which is the parent company of NBCUniversal, has its own competing streaming service coming, called Peacock.
Is it possible, as Hersko speculates, that this competition on the streaming marketplace has “incentivized Comcast to gate Turner Classic Movies channel behind a more expensive television package”?
Maybe. Or maybe it’s the other way around: Maybe WarnerMedia made it unattractive for Comcast to continue offering TCM for “free” on its basic package precisely as a way to nudge viewers to cut the cord and subscribe to HBO Max.
Either way, viewers will be paying more.
New host: It’s an especially bad look for all involved when you consider that TCM recently made a significant stride with the hiring of Jacqueline Stewart. A Chicago native and professor of cinema at the University of Chicago, she is host of TCM’s “Silent Sunday Nights” and the first black woman host in the network’s history.
“The fact that we’re still talking about black firsts is frustrating,” she told WTTW last month, because it “points to long histories of exclusion. At the same time, though, I feel this is something to celebrate.”
She’s right. And it’s a shame that it suddenly became more expensive for TV audiences to see her in this new position. Simply put, fewer people are going to be exposed to her expertise.
Film critic Kristen Lopez, whose work appears in Forbes, Remezcla and other publications, writes specifically about older films at her website Journeys in Classic Film. “With classic film access already being so limited, TCM kind of remains this last bastion of classic film access for anyone who wants to discover these movies,” she said.
“It’s always very weird with TCM, which is commercial-free. Longtime fans are always worried about things like, when are they going to start adding commercials? Or every time they do ‘31 Days of Oscar’ and they start showing Oscar-nominated movies from 2010 people are like, ‘This is proof that they’re going to start showing newer movies and it’s going to become like AMC, where you’re not going to be able to see anything classic?’ So people always get concerned. And now they’re putting it behind an additional paywall, for lack of a better description.”
Appeal: I’ve been thinking about how people generally think and talk about classic films when earlier this month, an interview that ran in Esquire with pop culture writer Shea Serrano about his new book “Movies (And Other Things)” sparked some back and forth on the topic of these films and their value (or lack thereof).
Serrano isn’t a film critic — he is best known for his writing about hip-hop and basketball — and it was specifically his comments about older films that touched a nerve on social media.
He was interviewed by Esquire’s politics editor Jack Holmes, who noted that Serrano’s book focuses on movies from the ’80s and beyond and asks: “Are you like me in that you don’t see a ton of appeal in movies older than that?”
Serrano replies: “I’m with you on that. I watch old movies and I’m like, ‘No thanks.’ They’re not fun. It’s clear that they were still trying to figure out how to do things. Some of them, of course, were undeniable, like a ‘Jaws’ or ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Indiana Jones.’ You watch those and you go, ‘Oh, I see in this the bones of what eventually became whatever action franchise.’ Or ‘Alien.’ (But mostly), they’re just not that fun to watch.”
Perceptions: As surreal as it is to hear him list those titles as “old” (he’s right; “Raiders of the Lost Ark” came out nearly four decades ago), there’s room enough in the media landscape to like what you like and avoid the rest. It seems odd to discount all of film history pre-1980, but Serrano is voicing something we’ve all heard before: The perception that films made during the first half of the 20th century are dull.
I remember maybe 10 or 15 years ago seeing 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd” for the first time — courtesy of TCM — and being blown back by how dark and cynical and disturbingly insightful it is, about a guy (Andy Griffith) who manages to exchange every ounce of integrity he might have once had for an empty life of celebrity, wealth and power. Patricia Neal plays the radio producer who discovers this rakish con man, only to regret sending him down this path, and the fact that a woman is playing this role in 1957 feels surprising in all the right ways. Plus, any film with Walter Matthau grumbling his way through his lines is worth your time.
That serendipity — of randomly catching a movie on TCM — now comes with an additional price tag.
Nearly all these movies are in black and white and I think for many, that’s the ultimate turnoff. But there are other reasons.
“There’s the concept of: Older movies are racist, they’re misogynist and there’s no way I see myself in those movies,” Lopez said. “And that’s a valid critique. Not all classic films are that way, but there’s this heavy history of, this is what Hollywood spent a lot of those decades doing. So if you’re a person of color who wants to see yourself represented in classic cinema, it’s very difficult. As a disabled woman, I don’t often see myself represented in classic cinema, but I talk a lot about ‘Freaks’ from 1932 as this landmark that we have not seemed to improve upon on the decades since.”
Film Society: One of the more consistent resources for classic film screenings locally is the Chicago Film Society, which has wonderfully eclectic taste and a real talent for unearthing obscurities. This week the film society screens the 1928 silent “The Sideshow” and as per usual, the blurb they’ve written includes just enough context to get you interested: The movie follows a trapeze artist who takes up with a traveling sideshow troupe and its circle of outcasts. Starring “Little Billy” Rhodes, who, as a little person in Hollywood, was frequently relegated to comic relief but here he plays a role with real depth. (Dennis Scott will accompany the film on the Music Box organ.)
“Unfortunately I think for a lot of people when they hear ‘classic film’ it just means old, especially in a way that means they’re not interested,” said Rebecca Lyon, who is a programmer with the film society. “But we’ve shown musicals that are some of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen. I think some of the strangest and darkest stuff I’ve seen on film falls in that period of classic film.”
You have to actively look for those kinds of pictures, she said, which the film society does. “We want people to walk away and be like, ‘OK, this movie I just saw from 1940 is one of the trippiest things I’ve ever seen — more so than anything I’ve ever seen this year.’ People in the 1940s were just as weird as we are. We showed a musical called ‘Yolanda and the Thief’ from 1945, it’s directed by Vincente Minnelli and it’s got Fred Astaire in it. On paper it seems like the kind of movie those guys in that Esquire interview wouldn’t want to watch, but it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen (laughs) and it’s fun and just really bizarre.”
Where to look: Because of the ease-of-access streaming provides, it feels like we should be able to watch more films than ever. That’s just not the case with older films, especially if you chucked your DVD player years ago. Kanopy is an on-demand streaming platform used by public libraries across the country and is one place to start; the Chicago Public Library, however, uses a different platform called Hoopla and it does not appear to have any classic films listed. Other places to look, per Lopez: “Amazon Prime has some insanely great classics. (On) YouTube you can find less-than-legit options. Places like archive.org and there’s the whole Library of Congress website. And Pluto TV or Tubi TV.”
As for TCM, Lopez thinks the recent change is “just going to force more people to cancel their cable. Sling and Hulu still have TCM On Demand and you can just watch it through those.
“Or the saddest thing is it will cause even more people to say, ‘I don’t necessarily need that channel anymore,’ and that in turn justifies this belief that TCM is no longer valid.”