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If you love film, you should be worried about what's going on at Turner Classic Movies

Turner Classic Movies offers a well-curated, wide variety of offerings, spanning more than a century of film history. Above, Gene Kelly pictured in 1952 during the filming of <em>Singin' in the Rain — </em>a movie that aired on TCM earlier this month.
AFP via Getty Images
Turner Classic Movies offers a well-curated, wide variety of offerings, spanning more than a century of film history. Above, Gene Kelly pictured in 1952 during the filming of Singin' in the Rain — a movie that aired on TCM earlier this month.

When the dismissal wasannounced recentlyof most of the people who have guided Turner Classic Movies brilliantly for years — the programmers, the producers of special material, even the executives who plan the TCM film festivals and party cruises — many people in Hollywood reacted like there'd been a death in the family. Because, to people who really love movies, that's what the news felt like.

The more you love film, the more you're likely to love TCM. It presents a wider variety of movies, across film's century-plus history, than any other network or streaming service. Thanks to its knowledgeable and enthusiastic co-hosts, it puts those films into context. It creates a sense of community and enthusiasm among its viewers, which is invaluable. TCM doesn't just present movies, it curates them. It explains why some films and performances are so good, and why you should watch and value them. And it presents those films, every one of them, unedited, uninterrupted and without commercials.

TV executive and maverick pioneer Ted Turner had many great ideas during his reign back in cable's early days, including launching TBS, the first satellite-transmitted superstation, and creating a cable channel for 24-hour news with CNN. But arguably, Turner Classic Movies is as pure, and as perfect, an idea as Turner ever had.

TCM has been a joy since its launch in 1994, and has never faltered. In my home, it's earned its place as my default channel of choice: When I'm not watching something else, I'm watching TCM. And I've watched it enough to say, with as much authority as I can muster, that of all the channels and streaming services on TV, it's the one that, more than any other, wasn't broke, and didn't need fixing.

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, in explaining his TCM changes, has said that, among other things, he wants to have filmmakers appear on TCM to curate and present movies of their choosing. Nothing wrong with that. Except you don't have to replace your current management team to make that happen — and besides, it's already happening. Earlier this year, when Steven Spielbergwas promoting his new autobiographical movie The Fabelmans, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz had Spielberg on to select, present and talk about three movies of his choice.

The team that's been running TCM for years has been serving up treats like this with regularity, and with exceptional taste. There are pockets on the schedule for silent movies, for underground films, for film noir, for musicals, and so much more.

And if you stay tuned between movies — which you should — you get even more treats. Salutes of actors by fellow actors. Short features on costume design and the uncomfortable but illuminating history of blackface in the movies. Some films are presented in newly restored form. Others are newly discovered and presented as the gems they are – and TCM occasionally revives and showcases rare live television dramas, too. You can imagine how much I love that.

Zaslav says the TCM channel is on all the time in his office, too, and he's saying all the right things about valuing the curation of film as well as film itself. But Zaslav already has just shut down his overseas equivalent of Turner Classic Movies in the U.K. And he's the guy who, since taking over the reins at Warner Bros. Discovery, already has turned HBO Max into just Max, which makes no sense — devaluing his own HBO brand.

Zaslav's altered that Max streaming service so that, while a link to a TCM sub-menu does appear, it's buried way down in the menu. What's worse, its highlighted TCM movie offerings are almost all of the more recent, filmed in color, variety. It's presenting only a tepid taste of what TCM offers on its own 24-hour cable service. Zaslav also, since becoming CEO, has overseen the rapid, clumsy devaluation of CNN, by making poorly received moves like that Donald Trump town hall. In Zaslav's short time on the job, he's already considerably damaged CNN, one of Turner's more brilliant network ideas. I fear, with Turner Classic Movies, Zaslav is about to weaken another — but I'd love to be proven wrong.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.

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