Overthinking TCM’s Recent Programming

Conrad Veidt 1936 Ardath Who Is This Tobacco Card

Keeping a careful eye on things

I'd been feeling a little let down by TCM lately. I always get this way this time of year when we're facing my least favorite TCM promotion, 31 Days of Oscar.

While not a fan I completely understand the appeal of 31 Days of Oscar. And while I'm sure to groan once or twice in the coming weeks, publicly, of course, it's really not such a terrible thing to suffer. Honestly, I'm a brat about it, but what do you expect when TCM spends so much time spoiling me with so many hidden gems throughout the rest of the year.

I guess that's my main gripe about 31 Days of Oscar. The gems are aplenty, but very few have been hidden*. These are, after all, all Academy Award nominated films. Again, this is me being a spoiled brat, but I record less off TCM in February than any other month of the year. I think of it like when I was a kid collecting baseball cards: Got it, got it, got it, etc. Not too many Need 'ems.

*In the February Now Playing Guide Robert Osborne mentions 27 TCM premieres this February out of 348 total feature films. Not sure if this is higher or lower than usual. And I do look forward to 1933's State Fair. Not so much 1997's Good Will Hunting.

But I do appreciate my own assumption that 31 Days of Oscar probably brings TCM more new or at least non-regular viewers than at any other time of the year. At least I'd imagine that to be so because of all of those heavy hitter titles that I was just running down as over-played.

But another problem I have with TCM's Oscar month is that it typically includes a slew of more recent releases in its programming. At least it has always felt that way (more coming below).

And that raises the old argument, "What's a Classic Movie?" To me the answer to that question is different from that to the question "What should TCM be showing?" In the case of the latter question I want TCM to show old movies. Now I completely agree that classic doesn't necessarily equal old nor does old always equal classic, but old is often harder to track down than classic is.

Angela Lansbury 1950s era real photo trading card

Nothing personal!

My opinion about more recent classics has always been that if I want to see a movie from the 1980's or later I have a bunch of other channels that already show them to me. TCM is the only channel that I can regularly view titles from my favorite movie decades, the 1930's and 40's, without commercial interruption. (PS: If you can stand commercials be sure to check your cable provider for Antenna TV. Lots of old movies early mornings from them!)

In anticipation of February's 31 Days of Oscar promotion I was a little put off by TCM's Star of the Month for January, Angela Lansbury, who I view as a star of more recent vintage. When my Now Playing Guide for February arrived I first flipped to the back cover, as I always do, to see who'd be Star of the Month for March. Karl Malden. Ouch.

No insult intended towards Angela Lansbury or Karl Malden, I just tend to be a lot happier with TCM when they put the focus on someone such as William Powell, as was done in December. In the grand scheme of TCM scheduling a disappointing Star of the Month is typically obscured by all of the other great programming throughout the month anyway. So not a big deal. I suppose it's just my complete lack of enthusiasm about February causing this. So c'mon April!

(Picturing myself in my easy chair a few decades from now shaking my cane at the TV wondering how they have the nerve to give me Ryan Reynolds as Star of the Month. Oh the future is scary. Let's just hope they've pre-recorded enough Robert Osborne clips to at least still have him around by the time I have my long, gray beard and ear trumpet.)

Chic Sale in Stranger in Town

This is close to how I've taken to imagining myself when I grow old.

This week all of the newer programming aroused my suspicions. From early Tuesday morning through Friday at 6 am (January 24-27) TCM only showed a total of 3 pre-1950 titles out 35 total classic movies aired. None pre-1941.

I became convinced that they changed their philosophy or at least their programming director and had shifted completely away from my 30's and 40's faves.

So I did a count.

Ronald Reagan in The Winning Team

Obligatory baseball classic still photo

I think this is that baseball fan in me I mentioned earlier who used to sit around computing fantasy stats after school (and I don't mean fantasy baseball stats, I mean completely made-up numbers and careers). Anyway, I like to add stuff up and stack them in proper order. That's what I did with the Now Playing Guide (no Classic Movie sabermetrics ... yet!).

This didn't take nearly as long as you might think (about 20 minutes) and thus is in no way guaranteed to be completely accurate. I just went to the back of the Now Playing Guides for each January and February 2012 and tallied off the decade for each movie listed. I tried to skip documentaries and I tried to count multiple airings. It's likely not perfect*.

*In fact I know it's not. Robert Osborne mentions 348 features during 31 Days of Oscar. I got 349. At least the count should be close.

Here are the totals for 31 Days of Oscar covering the period February 1 through March 2:

100 - 1940's
76 - 1960's
71 - 1950's
51 - 1930's
28 - 1970's
16 - 1980's
4 - 1920's
3 - 1990's

349 - Total

And prior to that here's January 1 - January 31:
128 - 1950's
102 - 1940's
76 - 1960's
56 - 1930's
21 - 1970's
11 - 1980's
9 - 1920's
2 - 1910's

405 - Total

Totals for all, January 1 - March 2, 2012:

202 - 1940's
199 - 1950's
152 - 1960's
107 - 1930's
49 - 1970's
27 - 1980's
13 - 1920's
3 - 1990's
2 - 1910's

754 - Total

I'm guessing there are 56 more titles in January than February because those Oscar nominated titles can be a might lengthy.

Overall, I'm pleasantly surprised. While the 1950's and 60's combine to edge out my faves from the 30's and 40's by a slight margin over the two months (351 to 309), I'm all right with that. The 50's and 60's may not feature many of my own favorite movies but they do qualify under my personal definition of old movies--those films produced prior to the time I was produced.

Lee Tracy strip card

More please!

Movies from the decades of the 1940's and 50's dominate the January-February TCM programming (53%) but that is, even I think, as it should be. I'm even okay with the 1960's topping my own favorite time, the 1930's. It's to be expected, I'd imagine, owing simply to the availability of the titles.

I would like to see them shuffle the schedule a little better. The 1950 and later marathon of this past week has me thinking of the 2011-2012 NBA schedule--imbalanced, to say the least.

But I do appreciate a good theme as much as anyone and that likely had a lot to do with the recent scheduling anomaly. Monday stretched my fondness of TCM's groupings a little. Best I can tell they moved seamlessly from movies with "Kid" in the title to movies containing the word "Gun" in the title. Why, I don't know, but The Kid from Broken Gun (1952) tied it all together just before midday. They got cute. But I always get a kick out of weekday birthday themed programming, even when it's not celebrating a personal favorite.

We can use a little more of It as well!

I was pleasantly surprised to find many fewer titles from the 1970's and 80's than I had expected, especially with Oscar month included in the count. I was actually shocked at how few pre-1930 titles TCM airs in January-February. Do they air silent films anytime other than Sunday at midnight anymore? Could use a few more there.

I'd be curious to know in the comments section below (subscribers click HERE) what your thoughts are about TCM's 31 Days of Oscar - Dread or anticipation?

Ambivalence is okay too, but what fun is that? You're probably still shaking your head over my taking the time to count them!

And speaking of the count, do you find any decades over or under represented? Any other observations?

Comments

  1. Connie Money says

    I get mad when I turn on TCM and it’s a movie from the 1950s forward, 
    Ok I still watch some of them, commercial free is still wins.  My favorite decade is also the 1930s and I could watch William Powell , Warren William, Fred and Ginger and Robert Taylor all day every day and be happy. 

    • says

      Connie, even if it’s not personally what I would request I don’t mind the 50′s and 60′s stuff too much because not many other channels are showing that stuff. So I give them a pass as the only game in town for movies from those years.

      I honestly like a lot of early 50′s movies, though I’d say my least favorite film decade would actually be the less neatly carved era of the mid-50′s to the mid-60′s–there’s a general hokiness that gets to me, but of course there are some exceptions.

      Heh heh, Warren William, huh? Nice to see my favorite break into that list of admittedly bigger boys (and gal).

  2. Britgalhere says

    I agree with you completely – I assumed I was the only disgruntled February viewer – 31 Days of Oscar is my least favorite month, the programming is lazy, and TCM wastes my precious classic movie viewing time by showing movies readily available for viewing elsewhere

    • says

      @09e00303a6c7818f870c16b49dad670c:disqus I wavered between actually posting this or not because it seemed a bit trivial even to me, but I’m so glad I did just because of how you put that: “I assumed I was the only disgruntled February viewer.” Absolutely not, I know there are others.

      I don’t think I’d go so far as to call them lazy only if for the fact that they do try to put a new spin on the feature each year. Sometimes it’s as simple as grouping titles by decade or the Awards they were nominated for, this year they actually seem to put a bit more thought into it by grouping movies by setting in an Around the World theme.

      On the bright side, at least they aren’t giving over a 3-1/2 hour block of time to Titanic this year … that had seemed to have become a favorite of theirs for awhile!

  3. says

    I don’t mention it above so I’ll add here that while “31 Days of Oscar” is my least favorite month on TCM, my favorite is August’s Summer Under the Stars. More hits than misses for me every August and even if there is a clunker thrown it it’s only for a day!

  4. Kim says

    A lot of TCM regulars seem to not like 31 Days of Oscars from what I’ve seen. I don’t dislike it per say but I think TCM could do a lot more with it. They seem to play the same movies over and over again (this year especially seems to mirror last year). And I know they are limited by what is nominated but I still think there are more choices than what they are showing.

    I mean I would especially love to see more of the best foreign pictures (and even more of the foreign nominated films).

    However I am not sure if I agree with you about Angela Lansbury being “recent vintage”. Of course my earliest memories of her have been from Murder She Wrote, but she’s just had a very long fruitful career starting in the 1940′s with Gaslight. For me she is very much vintage, it’s just her career spanned past that stage.

    Karl Madden I don’t really have much of an opinion of but I guess what disappoints me is for the past 2 years March has been an amazing month on TCM with 2010 honoring Akira Kurosawa/Ginger Rogers & 2011 honoring Jean Harlow. So far 2012 hasn’t really had a strong month like that yet but I guess the year is still young.

    • says

      Hi @6709c4cfae749ee398a7a8298c34c36f:disqus I can see your point on Angela Lansbury, at the same time most of the stars I’d prefer see get the focus were already working, at least on stage, by the time she was born! My first thoughts of her are also Murder She Wrote and The Manchurian Candidate (oh wow, that’s celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year!). Then I will confess my thoughts drift further back to Dorian Gray.

  5. Laura says

    Cliff, I love lists and stats (another baseball fan here, grin) so I really enjoyed your post and found the breakdown very interesting!

    Like another comment below, I part company on thinking of Angela Lansbury as a newer star — I guess it can seem that way given that she’s still acting, LOL, but when I think Lansbury I think first of her MGM films of the ’40s.  Probably to be expected, given that MGM films were my first great movie interest, other than the Julie Andrews films of my early childhood. :)

    But I definitely share your dislike of the Oscar fest.  The most enjoyable part of it is the creative ways TCM thinks of to program the movies, such as this year’s travel theme or a past year’s “going to college” theme.  But I think part of reason they even need such theming is to help dress up many of the same titles year after year in a new way.  They usually come up with a nice surprise or two, such as the Will Rogers STATE FAIR this year or THE HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD last year, but all in all I look at February as a chance to try to make a dent in my backlog of TCM recordings!

    I personally consider the classic film era to have ended when the MPAA ratings began in ’65 and movies started to change a lot — I think the number of films which interest me probably drops sharply even earlier than that, after ’63 or so.  Like you, my cutoff for “classic” happens to roughly coincide with the era in which I was “produced”! 

    I would be quite happy if TCM didn’t show films from the ’70s on but recognize they may be trying to draw in more viewers, and in many cases, even when those films are easily obtained on DVD, TV airings on other channels tend to be in pan & scan or have commercials.  So at least when they’re shown on TCM they look nice!  And your tally was reassuring in terms of the ’30s-’60s still dominating the programming.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    • says

      Hi Laura, see my Lansbury reply to Kim below. I don’t disagree about ’65 being a good cut-off date and as far as my own personal likes go, to generalize (as I have been this entire exercise), that’s when I think things get good again. I much prefer films of the late 60′s and 70′s to those of the mid-50′s to mid-60′s on the whole … I just don’t think they have any business on TCM. Let me soften that a little, they can air what they like, but if they’re going to show post-60′s stuff I probably won’t be watching.

      PS: I really enjoyed The House of Rothschild, that one’s been in the hopper for a write-up for some time now … I guess about a year from what you say.

      • Laura says

        Cliff, I knew you really preferred the films of the ’30s and ’40s to the ’50s…that’s so interesting to me that you really like the late ’60s and ’70s compared to the ’50s.  To me, with a few exceptions of course, that time frame is a vast wasteland (big grin)…I especially remember growing up in that era and there being nothing much to go see except Disney’s lower-tier live action movies, until things started turning around and becoming more family friendly in the late ’70s.  As an adult I still don’t find much of interest from that era. Anyway, I’m very intrigued that you prefer the later films to the mid-’50s/early ’60s and would love to learn more about your likes in this regard if you’d like to generalize more, LOL.  Maybe I’ll find some ideas to be watching for.

        It’s funny, I’ve still got my HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD tape to watch!  Maybe that can be one of my Oscar month goals!  I’ll look forward to your writeup.  I’m drawn to it because of the two Youngs, Loretta and Robert.  So many movies, so little time.  We’ll never run out of great things to watch, aren’t we lucky? :)

        Best wishes,
        Laura

        • says

          Laura, I think it’s the grittiness of the 30′s and 40′s, especially pre-code and film noir titles for instance, that comes back on the scene with the violence and realism of the late-60′s-70′s. The eras play similarly to me.

          • Laura says

            Oh, I can see that similarity, that makes sense to me.  Never thought of it before.  I guess part of the reason I have a harder time with the late ’60s and ’70s is that the grittiness became so overt and realistic in terms of language and violence, often crossing a line I’m not comfortable with.  (I say that as someone who took a long time to warm up to ’40s noir in the first place — now I love it but I had to get past the perpetual darkness of noir, LOL.)  But I can really see the comparison you draw.  Thanks!

            Best wishes,
            Laura

  6. Ron says

    Cliff another well thought out post.I mostly agree with you about the month of February. I use the month to catch up on rare and b films i’ve purchased from collectors. I have lots of early Paramount and Fox to keep me happy. I understand TCM plans on showing those soon. Have you heard anything about that? I think they are fair about the star of month giving  more unsung or a variety of styles. I don’t mind because ther usually is a character actor that saves/steals a picture.Besides you would not want Spencer Tracy every month .Oh bad example lol. Liked your breakdown of years I’d still like to see more early 30s. I think they should stop at 1970. Speaking of new movies there were at least 2 of interest to film buffs this year Hugo and The Artist.

    • says

      Hey @eb22c00c3f3efbdb43ee2507806d5ad1:disqus thanks so much! Oh, it doesn’t have to be Spencer Tracy every month … I’m shooting for Lee Tracy if you catch my drift. I haven’t heard anything specific about Paramount or Fox but more early Paramount would be especially interesting (Fox Movie Channel seems to have the others covered, at least for me here). My top request at this point would be some non-Horror 1930′s Universal, that seems to be an unexplored area.

      And yes, my own dream programming would see the 30′s top that list every month and the count from the 70′s upwards would be given over to more silent films.

  7. says

    The “31 Days Of Oscar” doesn’t thrill me much, either — it’s like having your favorite oldies station, one that plays plenty of obscure hits but great records, go into a mode for a few weeks where all you hear is “Satisfaction,” “Respect” and “I Can’t Help Myself” — but it’s probably a necessary evil for TCM in its relationship with AMPAS. If it brings a lot of casual and younger viewers to the channel, viewers who will stay on after the event concludes, it’s worth the 31 days of relative lack of interest from me.

    Regarding the relative lack of ’30s films — one major problem TCM has it that it still doesn’t have a legit long-term setup for product from Universal, whose library includes several hundred pre-1948 Paramount titles. Last August, when Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert were featured in “Summer Under The Stars,” the only Paramount Lombard film shown was “Hands Across The Table,” and I’m not sure whether any of Colbert’s Paramounts ran. There are hundreds of Paramount (and Universal) titles that TCM has never been able to access, and it would be great for it to run many of them, just as it did for comparable Columbia product in recent years.

    • says

      Nice comparison @google-c1145990ce337529785887f96df6c62d:disqus to the commercial radio hits. I agree, it’s worth it in the end if it it gains new fans to the channel.

      And you’re right, no Colbert Paramounts played, I remember being upset about it at the time.

      I’ve been pleasantly surprised that they’ve been rolling out the Universal horror classics a couple at a time over the past several months, so greedily I want more.

  8. Muriel says

    31 Days of Oscar is also my least favorite TCM month.  I usually catch up on my stack of movies during this time. I think of old movies as anything made before 1960.  Anything made after 1960 is labelled older, newer and new.
    Like many, I agree that Oscar month at TCM is necessary to attract and hopefully *keep* new viewers.  Besides, it must be a good month for many film fans who like the tried and true or an opportunity to catch up on some big classics at one time. Not everyone seeks out the more obscure pleasures that air in the small hours.
    That said, there are a few nuggets I look forward to in February : “The Rains Came” “Voice in the Wind”, “The Long Voyage Home”, “The Cruel Sea” (because I love both the novel and the cast!); ” The Guardsman”, with Lunt & Fontanne and “The Chocolate Soldier”, a remake with a very funny Nelson Eddy & Rise Stevens and Florence; and “White Shadows in the South Seas”.  That’s a very short list compared to my usual “must watch” list in a normal month. I’ve seen most of these films but it’s been a long time and I look forward to renewing aquaintance.

    • says

      @9d424e7fa81b7b21fa94820daab8f197:disqus yes, catching up seems to be a popular activity among us dedicated TCM regulars! After I wrote this I was scanning my cable box setting up my DVR movies to record this week when suddenly I ran into 3 or 4 days where I was only recording one movie–even after this I forgot, February is almost here!

  9. muriel says

    I had no problem with Angela Lansbury as TCM  star of the month. I definitely think of Lansbury as a classic movie star.  I’ve never seen “Murder She Wrote” which is how most people think of her now.  The movies where I really like her performances fall into a classic movie era: National Velvet, Picture of Dorian Grey, The Kind Lady, Gaslight, The Court Jester, and of course the worst mother of all time in The Manchurian Candidate, although that last one is pushing my 1960 breakoff point. . I think people forget how far back she goes.

    • says

      My Angela Lansbury classification seems to be the main point of disagreement over this article, but I can completely understand where everyone is coming from on this.

      Perhaps I should have qualified the statement some and called her “a star of more recent vintage”–when compared to some of my more recent SOTM favorites such as William Powell, Buster Keaton, or Ray Milland, all of whom were working much earlier. Your mention of Kind Lady might sum it up best for me as I think of Basil Rathbone and Aline MacMahon when I think of that title.

      You’re all right though, after all I covered Kirk Douglas extensively when he was Star of the Month, I should have done the same for Lansbury. “Murder, She Wrote” likely did color my statement more than it should have been allowed!

  10. Patricia (Caftan Woman) says

    I’ve tried to pin down why 31 Days of Oscar is my least favourite time of year and I think part of it is that there’s no room for a Lone Wolf or a Boston Blackie or their ilk.  Another reason might be guilt on my part.  Here is my favourite channel on the planet exhorting me to “be sure to catch the Oscars live” and I have no intention of doing so.  I’m interested in the outcome of the awards, but the ceremony lost its’ luster for me ages ago.

    • says

      Oh, @e324244fad5772057df7f8469751b626:disqus I so agree … I miss my B-Movies!  Though I do see The Invisible Woman airs on Friday!

      I’ll usually make time for the Oscars, but it becomes more of a chore every year.

  11. Anonymous says

    I agree with you about Febuary on TCM. The fact there are so many movies from the 60s on this month is a bad indicator. That decade was the worst for movies (just something about the overblown production values and acting), along with the 00s, 90s and 80s. I don’t like rewatching movies I saw as a kid and teenager for some reason. But I love seeing movies from before that time. To me, the 30s movies were the best, followed by the 50s and 40s.

    But the other thing to your point is, Oscar winning movies aren’t necessarily the best movies or my favorites, then or now. Just as they have been doing recently, the academy has always been “forced” to hand out oscars to certain films. I think the movies that get oscars are the ones where the most effort was put into conceiving or producing and then advertising them, and later on the effort put in by the critics and fans going to see them and discussing them. The buzz. Also, topical and socially conscious films are rewarded. But none of this makes them enjoyable in and of themselves. So, especially from the 60s, but also from other decades, oscar winning films are less enjoyable than so many of the everyday films the studios made.

    • says

       Thanks for the comment @SRB7:disqus – I did another post tallying up the March entries from the Now Playing Guide for March as well, you can find that here. The 50′s win by a hair over the 60′s for March, but the 30′s and 40′s are well-represented as well.

      Point taken regarding Oscar nominees not always being the best. I’ll go so far as to say they’re usually not my favorites. While I can see the point of TCM grouping them this way to coincide with the current Oscar event and try to draw in new viewers, it would be interesting if they really changed it up one year with, say, Oscar snubs or throw in a week of films featuring stars who had never been nominated, etc. A lot of possibilities that go beyond the typical annual shuffle.

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