AMERICAN MOVIE CLASSICS

U.S. Cable Network

During the final sixth of the 20th century the television cable channel, American Movie Classics (AMC), quietly became one of the fastest growing television networks in the U.S. Half owned by Cablevision Systems and mammoth TeleCommunications, Inc., AMC is one of the great success stories in the emergence of cable TV in the U.S. Film fans loved AMC for showing classic, uncut, uncolorized Hollywood films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, with no interruptions for advertisements.

Over-the-air television had already served as the principle second run showcase for Hollywood films from the mid-1950s into the 1970s. But the number of over-the-air TV stations in any one market limited the possible showcases for classic Hollywood films. Film buffs in major markets did have independent television stations which frequently counter-programmed with Hollywood movies, but they hated the ways in which stations sanitized the presentations of theatrical films, cut them to fit them into prescribed time slots, and interrupted moving moments with blaring advertisements. With the emergence of cable television in the 1980s, AMC offered a niche for these fans, who sometimes referred to the channel as the "Metropolitan Museum of classic movies." Indeed, AMC created a "repertory" cinema easily operated by a remote control.

AMC began in October of 1984 as a pay service, but switched onto cable's "basic tier" in 1987 when it had grown to seven million subscribers in one thousand systems across the U.S. This growth curve continued and by the end of 1989 AMC had doubled its subscriber base. Two years later it could count 39 million subscribers.

No cable service in the U.S. ever received more favorable reviews. Critics raved at AMC's around-the-clock presentation of Hollywood favorites and undiscovered gems, a stark relief from the sensory overload of MTV. AMC bragged about its sedate pseudo-PBS pacing.

AMC also has created first run documentaries that focus on some part of the movie business, such as a corporate profile of Republic Studios, a compilation history entitled "Stars & Stripes: Hollywood and World War II," and a history of boxing movies labeled "Knockout: Hollywood's Love Affair with Boxing." AMC regularly features interviews by Richard Brown, professor at the New School of Social Research, as part of its on-going series "Reflections On the Silver Screen," and also cablecasts Ralph Edwards' This is Your Life episodes from the 1950s.

American Movie Classics regularly fills slots between films with old 20th Century Fox Movietone Newsreels. Fans can once again watch as a bored John Barrymore puts his profile into the cement in front of Grauman's Chinese theater or Shirley Temple accepts her special Oscar, then asks her mother if it is time to go home. In short here is the perfect nostalgia mix for anyone who lived through (or wished they had) the "simpler" time of the 1930s and 1940s.

AMC unabashedly promotes its nostalgic escape. Consider a typical stunt. The room, painted black and white (the purity of American Movie Classics), is filled with the sounds of Gordy Kilgore's big band playing Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" as more than two hundred couples spin, remembering a better time. The celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor? No, this was a late 1980s marketing device by American Movie Classics and the local cable system (owned by Time Warner), in Wichita Falls, Texas, a moment designed to launch AMC in that market.

 


Courtesy of American Movie Classics

By June 1988 American Movie Classics was successful enough to begin a colorful magazine. An old time classic star graces the cover of each issue; the first featured Katharine Hepburn, later came James Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, and Henry Fonda. Inside the cover comes a short, picture laden piece about a classic movie palace. Then comes a table of contents filled with articles about the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood (keyed to American Movie Classic showings). The core of the magazine is the listings of that month's American Movie Classics offerings, highlighting festivals constructed around stars, series (such as Charlie Chan) and themes ("Super Sleuths," for example).

But there are limitations to the successes and benefits of AMC. Unless a new preservation print has been made (as was the case with the silent 1927 classic Wings), American Movie Classics runs television prints. These versions of the films are often incomplete, having been edited during the 1950s and 1960s to eliminate possibly offensive languages and images. Often TV prints have been cut to run a standard 88 minutes, timed to fit into two hour slots, with advertisements. American Movie Classics runs these incomplete prints, deciding not to spend the necessary moneys to create a complete version.

Fans rarely complain about the TV prints, however, and cable operators herald American Movie Classics as what is best about cable television. The channel has replaced the repertory cinemas which used to dot America's largest cities and college towns and serves as a fine example of specialized niche programming in cable TV of the 1990s.

-Douglas Gomery

FURTHER READING

Alexander, Ron. "AMC, Where the Movie Never Ends." New York Times, 17 November 1991.

Brown, Rich. Cablevision Pays $170 Million for AMC." Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 20 September 1993.

Dempsey, John. "Profitable AMC Turns 10; Sets for Some Classic Competition." Variety (Los Angeles), 26 September 1994.

Moshavi, Sharon D. "AMC Buys Universal Packaging." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 20 May 1991.

See also Cable Networks; Movies on Television