TCM offers clutterless classics

Apr 9, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Some people think that because I’m very fat, the thing to do is take me to lunch. In fact, really fat people don’t get fat on lunches, they get fat on the crap that is advertised every 13 minutes on television: Cheetos, Tostitos, Doritos, anything in the “itos” food group. “No eato the ito” is a good motto for a fat man to embrace.
This was an enjoyable lunch, though, summoned as I was by Tom Karsch, general manager of Turner Classic Movies; Charlie Tabesh, their vice president of programming; ultra-erudite on-air host Robert Osborne; and Justin Pettigrew, public relations director.
Karsch had some encouraging words. Unlike virtually every other executive in cable or broadcast television, he’s taken a step to reduce clutter on the air. I’m talking about not time clutter but space clutter, the visual clutter that has proliferated wildly in recent years-using the TV screen as a bulletin board and slapping it full of electronic Post-It notes. “Visit our Web site” is among the most irritating.
Seinfeld yadda, yadda
CBS, the Contemptuous Broadcasting System, may be going for a record in cluttering up the screen. Several of its prime-time shows now begin with not only the superimposed parental guidance rating and of course the omnipresent if not exactly all-seeing Eye logo, but then, stripped across the bottom, we’ll see “Made possible in HDTV by Panasonic” or Mitsubishi or whoever.
This is a big intrusive banner, the kind of thing that Miss Hackensack might wear as a sash if Miss Hackensack were 7 feet tall and weighed 340 pounds. And it’s only part of the flotsam and jetsam that’s intruding on the frame and helping the Tiffany network look not good enough to be the Wal-Mart network.
In Washington, Fox affiliate WTTG-TV has taken to slapping a banner across the bottom third of the screen to inform viewers “You are watching `Seinfeld’ on WTTG-TV.” And it’s so thoughtful of them, too, because they do it during the credits of “Seinfeld” when we just might forget what show it is. They paste words over words, sometimes blacking out the opening credits. They probably do this because they begin “Seinfeld” at 7:29 p.m. instead of 7:30 to get a head start on competing fringe programming.
In the past couple of decades we have seen all the lines in television blur. No one is apparently raising much of an objection to Mark Burnett blurring the line between commercials and program content by building innumerable product plugs into his scummy “Survivor” shows. On the last edition, starving people, literally starving, were offered-guess what-Doritos! Just the thing to make starvation look good.
Meanwhile, back at Turner Classic Movies, Karsch and colleagues have found a way to get rid of the messy parental guidance bug they were installing in the upper-right-hand corner of each movie as it began. Now I know it sounds like a small thing, but the rating, which on this network is almost always G or PG, was obscuring part of the credits on the movies being shown. In the case of “Citizen Kane,” what was obscured was “A Mercury Production.”
This wasn’t just bad taste and disrespectful of Orson Welles. This had TCM in contempt of Congress, since “Citizen Kane” is one of the landmark films protected by federal legislation. Remember in “Annie Hall” when Woody Allen refused to go into a movie after it had started, even 10 seconds after and even if all he missed was part of the opening credits? True film buffs who relish and cherish Turner’s classic movies want to see the whole film, as it was made, uncut, and without gingerbread and filigree and all kinds of extraneous junk superimposed on it.
American Movie Classics (AMC), TCM’s chief rival, in about 20 million more homes, is sloppier with its movies, many of which, of course, are not classics or even classics of kitsch. And some aren’t American either. Last year AMC added commercials between films, after years of going without them. It was a dirty trick to play on loyal viewers.
Et tu, AMC?
Recently AMC aired a fascinating documentary about the making of “Cleopatra,” the fabled 1963 fiasco. I asked an AMC spokesperson if the documentary would be interrupted for commercials. She said no. I watched it on the air. It was interrupted for commercials at the midpoint. She lied to me. AMC can go take a flying leap. They haven’t been the same since they banished Bob Dorian anyway. Apparently they’re trying to lower their demographic profile-partly by lowering the standards of the movies they show. They’re showing more shoddy and tattered prints than usual, too.
TCM got rid of the “G” and “PG” in the corner by putting it on a separate card. First comes a taped intro to preface either the film or a few words from Osborne, who knows almost everything about movies that can be known. This is now followed, and the movie preceded, by a generic shot of a city at night and a train going by (they have a thing for trains at TCM) and then we see the parental guidance rating-which, let’s face it, 99.99 per cent of the parents watching couldn’t give less of a damn about anyway. But they have to put it up there.
Now at least it stands separated from the film. One small step for Turner Classic Movies, one small step for viewerkind. At least somebody is trying to declutterize the splotchy blotchy face of television. TCM was already a magnificent oasis of class in the cable wasteland. It has just moved a little closer from near-perfection to perfection itself.