Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Turner . . . Not-Really All THAT Classic Movies?

Well, the latest and not greatest from Cable TV Land is that Turner Classic Movies, the one TV channel that film buffs can actually watch without vomiting, is launching a new advertising campaign called "Let's Movie".

Here's the trailer, which does have that distinctive Madison Avenue patina. . . there they are, yet again, shiny happy people, invariably smiling very annoyingly. One notes how very young and very good looking everyone in the ad is, except for the sole over-25 dude with the silver beard.

One would assume TCM's ratings and profits are alarmingly down or at least not producing the megabucks that the corporate owners demand and the channel - exemplified by knowledgeable and entertaining on-air hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz - needs to survive.

We get it - Turner Classic Movies is in a cutthroat competition for a very limited pile of consumer dollars during a time best described as "the dumbing down of America". That means TCM must not just maintain, but increase their audience in an aggressively anti-culture and anti-learning era now dominated entirely by "the suits" - The Big Business Guys n' Gals - and the quest for bigger and bigger profits. And the coveted young demographic is the Holy Grail.

Now in all honesty, the very active cynical side of this correspondent does not have much respect for marketing as a profession - the mission is and has always been to sell the almighty consumer a bunch of crap one never needed in the first place. Little has changed since Stan Freberg razzed the pursuit of both money and a not-very-bright American public back in the 1950's.

In the decades since, things have only gotten exponentially worse. Cringing at such phrases as "branding" while one's ol' crap detector goes ballistic, it's easy to agree with the caustic viewpoints of satirists Bill Hicks and George Carlin.

In the nine years since Mike Judge's 2006 film Idiocracy presented a future world entirely populated by dunderheads - yes, indeedy - all these trends have gone into overdrive.

Back to the "Let's Movie" campaign, reading the press release, all this celluloid-crazed writer could see - with the full knowledge that TCM frequently shows 1970's and 1980's films that, while often good, do not come to mind when one the word "classic" comes to mind - was big red flags. To quote it verbatim:

"TCM will promote the campaign through linear, out-of-home and digital elements including on-air spots, digital ads on, placement in TCM’s bi-monthly newsletter, cross-promotion within the Turner portfolio including banner ads on, on-air spots on TBS, TNT and CNN Airport Network, as well as electronic billboards in New York City and Atlanta and on-screen ads in more than 750 movie theaters nationwide. Additionally, TCM will launch a social media campaign – #LetsMovie – compromised of daily social activities and fan engagement across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and Tumblr, leading into a dedicated “LetsMovie” holiday on September 19 in which TCM will encourage fans to watch films with family and friends and share their experiences via social media."

While most of this is good news, and the news reports do not indicate that TCM plans to discontinue pre-1950 films, one glaring red flag is in this quote from TCM General Manager Jennifer Dorian, "the campaign is intended to attract a broader audience to TCM, stressing that the network 'celebrates the entire spectrum of film history' not just those from the 20’s and 30’s." In one sense, that creates positives and possibilities: for example, a double bill of Grand Hotel and The Grand Budapest Hotel, paired with an interview with Wes Anderson by Robert Osborne or Ben Mankiewicz, would be fantastic.

The concern is that what the corporate-speak phrase "celebrating the entire spectrum of film history" actually means is that down the road, pre-1935 films, many not available on DVD or Blu-ray, will be ushered off TCM entirely or relegated to middle-of-the-night time slots (A.K.A. cable TV Siberia) in favor of crummy movies made a few years ago, which can easily be found anytime on numerous other channels.

Another red flag is in the last part of the following quote: “like every TV brand, we’ve got to look at the future and new technologies and give people what they want.” Your Film Geek Correspondent has no problems whatsoever with the first part of the statement and in fact, applauds it - this is, after all, the era of instant gratification and 24/7 entertainment.

If an individual's preference is to watch a David Lean big screen epic or Cinemascope film on a teeny tiny smart phone instead of in 70mm with an audience, fine, make it easy for that person to download the app that will enable them to enjoy watching the movie on that smart phone or tablet, wherever they are, anytime. It beats the heck out of not seeing the film at all and said person may not own a Blu-ray player, state of the art wide-screen TV or be lucky enough to live in the select few U.S. cities with revival houses that show classic movies on the big screen. And besides, that could prompt the viewer to investigate the films of David Lean, as well as the wide ranging careers of Peter O' Toole and Omar Sharif. All good.

Unfortunately, the last part of the statement is cringe-inducing. While cinematic, literary and comedic gems can - and are - frequently found in dung heaps, the credo "give the public what they want" has a downside; in many cases, the general public doesn't just want crap, but actually ONLY wants crap.

The past record of "giving people what they want" has left much to be desired. One result: "reality TV", both artistically worthless and a scourge of the universe, has replaced actual content. Two more: an emphasis on action/mindless violence dominates and genuine humor is becoming an endangered species. Now, all of the above have their place but if that's THE ONLY THING that is available. . . it's a bad, not good, very, very bad development. Burying the old and bringing on the new is good for technology but not so good for our culture and human history.

Not everyone is alarmed by these developments at TCM. Will McKinley, publications author and correspondent for the excellent Cinematically Insane blog expressed enthusiasm for the campaign and in the channel's potential future as a streaming service in his September 1 post about the latest changes at Turner Classic Movies. Mr. McKinley does not regard this news as The End Of The World As We Know It or a sign TCM will banish all pre-1940 cinema, transform into the dreadful American Movie Classics or those hideous channels that run grisly "true crime" stories, Duck Dynasty or Keeping Up With The Kardashians 24/7. While respecting Mr. McKinley, whose blog I am happy to include in the 20th Century Pop Culture Blogs list, I don't share his rosy viewpoint.

It totally makes sense that Turner Classic Movies, to increase viewership, has launched this campaign to attract younger viewers by going all out on the mediums that they use and blanketing social media. On one hand, 20-somethings frequently appear to be glued to their smart phones and uninterested in anything that isn't current, but on the other hand, classic film events in some parts of the world are enthusiastically supported by young moviegoers: a prime example would be the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The "Let's Movie" catchphrase grates on this grammar geek, but if this campaign and its strategy of blanketing social media with daily activities actually induces young (and not so young) people to stop staring at their stupid phones and have some minimal awareness of our cinematic heritage, the arts and music, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are all for it. Dyed-in-the-wool movie buffs, without a doubt, would love to see a larger audience to tune in to TCM, even if on a smart phone or tablet, and break from the conventional non-wisdom (BLACK AND WHITE - EWWWWWWW!).

Now you kids get off my lawn and watch a few Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder movies!

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