Monday, July 11, 2011

Turner Classic Television?

  Al 'n Yetta by Allan Sherman

For fans of classic TV, like me, these are both the best and worst of times. 

Best, because at least three networks – Antenna TV, Me-TV and Retro TV – are now vying for the audience once coveted by the likes of TV Land and Nick at Nite. 

Worst, because I can only see one of those channels – Antenna TV – here in Brooklyn, and, well, the show selection is still rather limited.

What's needed is a channel that culls from the entire history of classic television just as Turner Classic Movies does for that other filmed entertainment genre.  

As with older movies, most of today’s audience has no first-hand memories from when vintage television programs first aired.  Thus, these shows are no longer nostalgia – they’re history. And as TCM does with classic movies, classic TV needs to be taken seriously.

When Viacom’s TV Land began 15 years ago, that seemed to be its mission. The network even ran one-shot historically significant shows under the umbrella title, “Museum of TV and Radio Showcase.”  And we loved their airing of vintage commercials, dubbed “retromercials.”  But, in an era when even the Museum of TV and Radio couldn’t stomach the connotation of “old” that came with the word “museum” and morphed into the “Paley Center” TV Land soon abandoned its focus of "preserving our television heritage."

Both David Bianculli and Diane Werts over at TV Worth Watching have done a good job of bemoaning the descent of TV Land into the home of tired rerun retreads and derivative reality fare.

That’s a shame, since Viacom – born out of the original CBS Films – controlled one of the richest libraries of classic TV anywhere, at least until the company split in two in 2005, with the old TV shows becoming part of the new CBS, and TV Land remaining at Viacom. 

Yes, who exactly owns the rights to what can get confusing in the TV distribution world. 

Once upon a time (well, the early ‘90s), MCA Television found a way to monetize its old ‘50s TV shows by incorporating clips from them into its innovative HBO sitcom Dream On. Those old clips now lie buried somewhere deep in Comcast’s Universal Media library. 

Other rights-holders are more active in classic TV distribution. Antenna TV, for example, is essentially a 24-hour channel for old shows and movies from Sony’s Columbia/Screen Gems library.  Me-TV runs lots of product from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer catalog.

But what about the classic Warner Bros. shows that practically invented the studio system in network television back in the '50s and ‘60s? From what I can tell, such historic and trend-setting series as Maverick  and 77 Sunset Strip haven’t run anywhere since AmericanLife TV  stopped showing them a few years back (full disclosure: I once handled public relations for AmericanLife.)  They also figured prominently in what was perhaps TV Land’s final nod to vintage TV -- a 50-hour tribute to the 50th anniversary of Warner Bros. Television in 2005.

Now, guess who owns all those old Warner Bros. shows?  That’s right – the same Time Warner that owns Turner Classic Movies!  And they’d make a great starting point for a TV-centric equivalent to TCM.  This new channel could put TV shows in historic context, support preservation efforts, and, of course, group them together by theme – for example, a month of Emmy-winning episodes during awards season; a salute to Betty White’s 60 years in TV, from Life With Elizabeth  to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls to Hot in Cleveland; or a marathon of the nine episodes of WB’s The Roaring 20’s directed by esteemed director Robert Altman (similar to a sampling of Altman’s Combat! episodes that worked well for AmericanLife). 

So, from one who’d much rather watch Bachelor Father (here’s Mary Tyler Moore in an early guest appearance) than The Bachelor any day, let’s hear it for TCT – Turner Classic Television.
Robert Altman directed nine episodes of WB's The Roaring 20's.