TCM vs. AMC And the winner is the viewer

Different philosophies on variety and repetition mean there's a good chance for lovers of vintage films to see what they want.

July 05, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

So you missed yesterday's airing of "River of No Return" on American Movie Classics? Not to worry; it's airing again July 13, and probably several more times in the coming months. AMC believes viewers should have a second, third and fourth chance. That means less variety, but cuts back on the missed opportunities.

You also missed "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" on Turner Classic Movies? Now that could be a problem; it won't be on again in July, and may not air again for months. At TCM, the programmers cram as many movies as possible onto their schedule, figuring viewers want variety more than second chances.

Both channels appeal to the same core audience, lovers of vintage films. But their differing approaches have allowed them both to thrive and, officials insist, not be overly concerned with what the other is doing. The result is a win for film fans, who can find an abundance of riches on both.

"Our scheduling is based on 14 years of experience in who's watching our networks and what they want to see," says Noreen O'Loughlin, AMC's executive vice president and general manager. "If you're repeating a movie in three time slots, the same person is not watching, so it doesn't make a difference."

Tom Karsch, TCM's senior vice president and general manager, sees things differently. "We started four years ago and looked at what the competition was doing and did a lot of research and focus groups, and found that repetition was not a good thing. So we went in the opposite direction and went with very few repeats."

Their programming differences go beyond repetition. AMC has more original programming - about 20 percent of the monthly schedule, O'Loughlin estimates. That includes not only clip-filled retrospectives (such as a history of 20th Century-Fox studios) and theme shows (last month's overview of war films, for instance), but also the delightful "Remember WENN," a weekly look at the fictional adventures of a small 1940s-era Pittsburgh radio station. The series aired its 46th episode Friday.

"For viewers who enjoy a sense of the decade and the era, it's very rich and poignant for them," O'Loughlin says of the series. "The quality of the writing, the style of the writing of the show, emulates that era of entertainment." AMC has just finished filming the pilot for a second series, "The Lot," about life on a Hollywood back lot in 1937, and is aiming for a late 1998 or early 1999 air date.

As for the other special programming, she says, "original productions give viewers background information about classic Hollywood, and they're hungry for more information."

TCM has its share of original productions, too, including conversations with prominent stars of yesteryear - Ann Miller, Mickey Rooney and the late Robert Mitchum have all chatted with host Robert Osborne - and such programs as last month's fascinating look at the life of silent-screen siren Louise Brooks.

But for the most part, TCM is content to let its films do the talking - even if many of those films are silent (and TCM does a far better job of showcasing silent films than AMC).

"In our promotions, we stress the variety of films that you see on TCM," Karsch says. "Based on AMC's title, they are limited in scope to American movies. We, on the other, have international films on the network, including an Ingmar Bergman festival coming in September."

One big advantage TCM has over the competition is that it - orather, its head honcho, Ted Turner - owns a large percentage of its product. The Turner film library numbers some 3,300 films, including the entire MGM catalog, pre-1948 Warner Bros. films and the RKO catalog. That's a lot of movies to put out before the public.

"You want to give all those films some exposure," Karsch says"So many of these films have never been seen before, because they were never put out on video. ... They haven't been seen since they were shown in theaters."

Outside the Turner library, both channels compete for the samfilm pie, licensing films from such studios as Paramount, 20th-Century Fox, Universal, MGM/UA and Warner Bros. AMC currently has some 4,000 films under license, TCM about 4,800. Contracts give one channel exclusive rights to certain films for specified times, which is why a movie like "King Kong" aired for years on AMC, but now appears exclusively on TCM.

"There are vast numbers of films available," O'Loughlin notes"We're tapping into what we consider all the great classic movies that are available. We then cherry-pick them and schedule them according to what we think our viewers' interests are."

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