Open Mic

An Important News Flash About American Pop Culture, And I Doubt You’ve Heard About It

Chuck Ross Posted July 27, 2009 at 6:40 AM

Tags: HD, high definition, TCM, upconversion, upconvert

The three cornerstones of American popular culture are the movies, music and TV. This announcement I’m speaking of hits on two of the three: movies and TV.

The only thing that excites me more than a terrific TV show is a wonderful movie. I was raised on TV—and movies ON television—which were a staple when I grew up in Los Angeles. The local CBS owned and operated station in LA, then called KNXT, had a great late-night movie program on weekends: “The Fabulous ’52.” Over on Channel 9, KHJ,.the RKO TV outlet, it was the nightly “Million Dollar Movie.”

Of course you had to put-up with a gazillion commercials, but there were all the stars of the 40s that my mom and uncle were always telling me about: Bogart, Cagney, Davis, Bergman and many more.

And what great storytelling. The history of America, Hollywood-style, in our living room every night, in glorious black & white.

Then, of course, syndication of TV shows came in, and, for the most part, bye-bye movies.

But in 1994, something magical happened. Ted Turner, who, in a few moments of mad folly, had almost put himself out of business by buying MGM and its incredible film library, came up with a really great idea. The showing of these movies, these gems of our culture, these incredible examples of great storytelling, on a TV channel with no commercials. And they’d be shown uncut and in their original screen ratio, just as originally released.

Furthermore, he asked one of my former colleagues when I was at The Hollywood Reporter, Bob Osborne, to be one of the hosts on this new channel. What a great choice! Ever since I’ve known Bob he’s been a big fan of and advocate of preserving, older movies. I was living in New York back in the 1990s, and every now and again Bob and I would get together to see old movies at one of the few movie theaters that would show them. Unfortunately, there are even fewer theaters that show older films on a regular basis today.

Though, thank goodness, these movies can be found on the channel Turner started. The channel, of course, is Turner Classic Movies, better known as TCM. As Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss said of it earlier this year, “For anyone who believes that the first hundred years of movies possess treasures that the last few years can't touch — and that's most of the professional film folks I know — TCM is an utterly essential part of the culture, our own American cinematheque.”

And, now, here’s the news: TCM is going high definition. Finally. For now, it’s not true high definition, it’s just going to upconvert its current signal.

For those of you who might not think this is a big deal, it really is. For many of us with big high definition TVs, the standard def signal from TCM has just not been satisfactory.

My service provider doesn’t have TCM HD yet, but Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president of programming, tells me that the picture is markedly better.

Oddly, TCM itself has said almost nothing about this milestone. Clearly it wants to manage expectations, and most likely getting the channel in real HD is at least months away, if not significantly longer—Tabesh claimed to have no information on that front.

Most of the information about TCM HD has been on the technical oriented AVS Forum, where one of the participants, named Tybee, broke the story. Here’s one of his excited postings from last month:

"Had dinner with one of my friends at TCM last night. He was very excited about the HD rollout. As you would expect, he said they're in the midst of setting up as many carriage agreements as they can. Some things he passed along:

- Cablevision was indeed the first to pick up the channel.
- Time Warner has already signed to carry the channel in some small markets.
- The good news: EVERYTHING WILL BE SHOWN IT ITS ORIGINAL ASPECT RATIO. No stretching. No cropping. No exceptions.
- The bad news: For right now, everything is being upconverted, rather than being shown in native HD. This is temporary (a year or two?) and as my friend pointed out (and has been discussed here) the material still looks worlds better than it does on the SD channel."

Then, a few weeks ago, came this posting from user mbd, who actually was getting TCM HD through Cablevision:

"After a week of living with TCM-HD, some thoughts.

1. Most of what they are broadcasting seems to be upconverted, but it looks night and day better than TCM-SD on my 55" 1080i living room tv.

2. 1.37 films are being shown in their original aspect ratio.

Overall, I am happy with the channel. TCM-SD was very over compressed on Cablevision, the HD version is not."

In a few weeks a lot more people will have a lot more to say about TCM HD, because it will debut next month in Time Warner’s cable system in Manhattan.

I know there are a lot of you out there who have no use for old black and white movies. Do me a favor. TCM is running a great series this month, showing movies from one of the greatest years of movies, 1939. This Friday, July 31, at 9 am ET (6 am on the Pacific coast) it’s airing “Midnight,” made in 1939.

My guess is that most of you have never heard of this comedy. Please, set your DVRs to record it. It’s got a wonderful cast—Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, John Barrymore and Don Ameche, was directed by someone even those who like old films don’t know too much about—Mitchell Leisen, and was written by two of the great ones—Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.

It’s the kind of movie you’re only going to find on TCM. Lemme know what you think about it.#