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"The need is to cultivate that passionate fan base and to create and utilize and build a community with those folks," Koonin explains. "And if that's a community that supports you in DVD sales, if it's a community that supports you in festivals, if it's a community that supports you online, if it's a community that's going to support you if you have a branded product, that idea is to take that share of mind, and that share of heart, and develop it into a share of wallet."
Other changes include TCM's on-air talent. Take the "Guest Programmer" series. Osborne says the series – traditionally an occasional program – was inspired from his conversations with everyone from people on the street to conversations with friends on what TCM should program.
In November, the network spent the entire month of evenings using guest programmers, including nonfilm-related figures such as Donald Trump and Atlanta's own Alton Brown of the Food Network.
Rose McGowan, recent star of the movie Grindhouse, whose now-defunct WB series "Charmed" runs in syndication on TNT, impressed executives so much as a guest programmer that they decided to hire the 34-year-old for "The Essentials." The program is used to entice the average viewer to appreciate classic cinema. After allowing directors Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner and Peter Bogdanovich to host solo, TCM decided to pair Osborne with a woman (first film historian Molly Haskell and then actress/author Carrie Fisher). McGowan debuts with Osborne on "The Essentials" March 8.
"Rose McGowan ... is young and pretty, which doesn't hurt," Tabesh says. "But she's such a fan. We wanted to use somebody who legitimately loves the movies, not just putting on a pretty face that doesn't fit. She was so good [with "Guest Programmer"], she talked about movies with such knowledge and passion, and she was such a great contrast to Robert."
Maybe the best and worst thing that could have happened to Turner Classic Movies was AMC's departure from the commercial-free format. Whenever TCM shows a movie from within the last 20 years, the website's message board lights up.
This year, Tabesh hatched the dual-theme idea of featuring movies by genre by day and by decade at night – which, due to timing, meant more than a few movies from the past 17 years showing up over the weekends. So when a movie as recent as 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – which is often shown on TNT – shows up as part of "31 Days of Oscars," Tabesh braces for an inevitable backlash.
"There are some people who watch the network constantly and some get grumpy about watching some of the newer ones, and think we're becoming more like AMC," he says.
But network executives seem content to trade some criticism for showing more recent, more accessible and less pedigreed Oscar winners. "There's no goal of introducing more contemporary movies this year," Tabesh says, "but the goal is to showcase the history of the Academy Awards. ... Some people definitely freak out when they see a movie from the '90s. We're still living with this ... from when AMC shifted their format. Everyone is still on edge from that. [Viewers are still] scarred by that and feel that any movie that we play from the '80s and '90s, it's, 'Oh my God, they're going the way of AMC, and they're going to add commercials,' which is not at all true."
The push to broaden the network's appeal risks turning off some TCM loyalists. The seven-year-old Young Film Composers Competition, in which five finalists score a 90-second segment from a silent-film classic, underscored the network's commitment both to silent-film preservation and encouraging young artists.
The winner gets to score the entire film. Last year's winner, James Schafer, provided the score for 1924's Beau Brummel, which was aired on TCM last month. But the project has been shelved while the network tries to "evaluate the program." That hasn't sat well with some fans.
"I think it's pretty unfair of TCM to suddenly cancel the competition when so many of you talented composers were looking forward to entering," wrote one poster on the message board. "Always thought this was a great opportunity for those with such a talent and interest in silent films to contribute to and also inspire more interest in some classic films."
Koonin, who notes the response on the message board is limited to 18 comments, believes the value of the program is limited and wants to consider other potential projects.
"Well, right now we were disappointed in how narrow the scope of it was," Koonin says. " ... Nor had it hit on the brand elements that you'd want to put in a Turner Classic Movies. So we completed it, but we're evaluating whether to bring it back and see what the call for it is. Young Film Composers is asking a very narrow group of demographics to do a very specific task, and there are a lot of other things that we can do with the brand and that we are doing with the brand that I can't talk about today that are much larger in scope than this."