The ‘Citizen Kane’ of cable channels


Celebrating its 15th anniversary today, Turner Classic Movies, the commercial-free cable network specializing in vintage and contemporary classic films, has never altered its modus operandi.

The channel, which reaches 80 million homes, shows 400 different films each month and augments them with TCM-produced documentaries on actors, genres and directors, as well as interviews, guest programmers and franchises such as silent films on Sundays.

The programming may never hit the Top 20 in Nielsen’s ratings for cable, but it has developed a loyal following.


“We’ve had franchises come and go,” says Charlie Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president for programming. “But fundamentally, we haven’t changed our philosophy. We really haven’t done that. We always try to come up with different themes and festivals, but we haven’t changed the mix.”

There are two types of fans that watch TCM, says Tabesh. “One is older people who knew and love the movies that we show,” he says. “The second group transcends all ages -- film buffs, a little more the kind of people who would go to a revival theater or follow a particular director or genre.”

The network, though, is trying to lure the more casual film fan with such franchises as “The Essentials,” which is hosted by film historian Robert Osborne, TCM’s prime-time host, along with an actor or director. Last year, Rose McGowan co-hosted the showcase; Alec Baldwin started in March. The network also has broadened that franchise with “Essentials Jr.,” which features family classics. John Lithgow will be taking over those hosting duties this summer.

When the network started, 80% to 90% of the movies came from the Turner library, which consists of MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO. The Turner titles now constitute about 40%, Tabesh says. “Because we want to be a comprehensive classic movie channel, we try to get the best from all the studios.”

Michael Wright, head of content for TCM, TNT and TBS, adds that there is no plan to stray from the commercial-free format. “The people who I am speaking to and from whom I take my direction have given no indication of an inkling of ever thinking [of commercials].”

Of course, the network’s secret weapon is the affable, silver-haired host Osborne.

“It’s hard to think we have been doing it 15 years,” Osborne says. “I have always been a great movie buff and all of these movies have been sitting on the shelf for years and it’s wonderful to have them seen again. I’m so lucky I got to be a part of this.”


And he says fans always approach him as if he was a member of the family, even to the point that some women proclaim, “ ‘I spend more time in the bedroom with you than my husband,’ ” Osborne says. “It’s nice to have people feel comfortable with you.”