Terry Teachout on TCM’s 20th anniversary in the WSJ:
On Monday it will be showing, among other things, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane,” “Gaslight,” “Gone With the Wind,” “It Happened One Night,” “The Maltese Falcon” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” You couldn’t ask for a more representative sampling of the best of studio-era Hollywood…Ever since its launch, the audience for TCM has consisted primarily of people who want to watch studio-era movies. While the channel has diversified its offerings over the years, it remains committed to accommodating the conservative tastes of its regular viewers, which is why it steers clear of the franker films that Hollywood started to release around 1970. Look at the schedule for the month of April and you’ll find just 20 films made after 1970, most of them forgettable mediocrities.
If you believe, as I do, that American film entered a new period of artistic maturity in the 1970s, you’ll find little to confirm that belief. Where are “Apocalypse Now,” “Cabaret,” “Chinatown,” “The Deer Hunter,” “The Godfather,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Network,” “Patton” and “Taxi Driver”? Not on TCM. Nor do its potential problems stop there. With under-30 moviegoers reflexively tuning out black-and-white films because they look old fashioned, how can a channel that specializes in the oeuvre of Gary Cooper, Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart hope to eventually replace its aging viewers
The Renaissance was marked by a return ad fontes, to the texts of Greek and Roman classics, and indeed the Reformation featured a return to an ancient text. Things can get lost for hundreds of years, like perspective in art, and then get rediscovered, to the great benefit of civilization.
TCM is not just entertainment; it is a course in American history. Unique in that it is the first time in history we have the voices and pictures of human beings of yesteryear speaking to us directly. In important cultural ways, the America shown on TCM is superior to that of the 70′s and thereafter — the 40-80% illegitimacy trend of the last four decades is a cultural disaster of the first order.
TCM should stick to its knitting, and not worry that kids might currently prefer 3D to B&W. Niche marketing is fine. More importantly, kids can grow up and perhaps discover that BS and malarkey aren’t a viable path to rewarding lives. In that sense, TCM isn’t just a view of the past frozen in amber, but a reminder that a better future culture is possible.
(Incidentally, both Scott Johnson and Mark Steyn would be excellent fill-ins for Robert Osborne, but TCM’s chairman emeritus might object.)