Is TCM In Trouble?

Layoffs at Turner Classic Movies leaves film fans uncertain about the network’s future

In the latest questionable business decision to come out of Warner Brothers Discovery (WBD), Turner Classic Movies (TCM) lost five senior executives last week, and reportedly has seen its total workforce drop from about 90 employees to 20.

The announcement of the staff shakeup prompted swift outcry from fans of the channel and an emergency “come-to-Jesus” summit between WBD CEO David Zaslav and director heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Left without leadership, the network was first placed under the oversight of Michael Ouweleen, president of Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Discovery Family, and Boomerang. However, following the widespread backlash, creative oversight of TCM has transferred to Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy, the heads of Warner Bros. Pictures; meanwhile, Ouweleen and WBD TV networks chief content officer Kathleen Finch will continue to administer the business side.

What does this all mean? First off, it would seem that a lot of institutional knowledge has just walked out the door at TCM and there is not anyone in place to mind the channel full-time. To many viewers, the gutting of the channel’s workforce is the latest signal of WBD’s lack of commitment to the channel’s mission of keeping classic film alive and, in a broader sense, to preserving film history.


In a response to fans’ concerns, WBD promised that viewers would see “little to no change” to TCM in the coming months. However, the corporate decision-makers have thus far demonstrated a dubious grasp of what actually matters to fans. Case in point, sources at TCM told The Wrap that WBD suggested eliminating the signature host outros as an inconspicuous cost-cutting measure. After pushback from the hosts, they abandoned that plan, which would certainly have provoked outrage among the viewership.

In January, a piece in Entertainment Weekly described optimism at TCM. Despite widespread corporate restructuring, it would be business as usual with “classic film buff” Zaslav in charge. He has TCM on in his office all the time! He bought Robert Evans’ house! He uses Jack Warner’s old desk!

A month later, after the cancellation of the TCM Underground brand and the suspension of TCM’s partnership with Fathom events, the future of the network seemed less certain. In April, Zaslav appeared at TCM’s annual Classic Film Festival and declared that TCM was “the history of our country;” however, he also subsequently reduced the festival’s budget . Then last week, in response to the latest staff exits, the author of the Entertainment Weekly piece, Maureen Lee Lenker, tweeted “he hoodwinked all of us.”

A look at Zaslav’s track record shows good reason for alarm. As the president and CEO of Discovery beginning in 2006, Zaslav shifted the channel’s content from largely educational programs to reality TV. He designed the move to cater to the largest possible audience and to make money as quickly as possible.

Since Warner and Discovery merged in April 2022, viewers have been on high alert as cost-cutting measures began to affect Warner properties from Cartoon Network to HBO Max. The overhaul of the HBO Max streaming service–most notably the abrupt removal of content from the streaming platform and the cancellation of projects, including a nearly-complete Batgirl movie, apparently to save money on taxes – has soured its subscribers. The eventual de-evolution of HBO Max to Max, felt like the watering down of a distinctive, established brand into something more nebulous. Whether intentionally or not, the transformation reduced the diversity of content (and creators) on the platform creating a more homogenized landscape.

TCM has a strong brand and an extremely loyal viewer base. By all accounts, the channel remains profitable. It would seem like a smart business decision to keep TCM unchanged, since it requires the production of very little new content, yet viewers will consistently pay for it.

However, with the now greatly reduced staff and no consistent leadership at TCM, it is easy to envision the channel dying by a thousand cuts. The first thing to go would certainly be the distinctive touches that make TCM feel like a special destination: the interstitial short films, the themed programming like Summer Under the Stars and 30 Days of Oscar, the more unusual and obscure films that require an expert’s curation.

TCM is the steward of not only the classic WB film library, but also 2200 films that MGM made prior to 1986 (when Ted Turner purchased the library), as well as many RKO films.

Many of these films are not available on physical media, either because they are out of print or were never released on VHS or DVD. Film lovers depend upon TCM to preserve these works in the public consciousness.

The programming includes silents, international films, documentaries, and cult films, as well as special spotlights on women and BIPOC filmmakers. TCM is one of the few places to even find a large selection of black and white films. Beyond providing the content, the channel has consistently provided context, not only through the host intros and outros, but also through thoughtful programming such as the recent Reframed series.

By contrast, the TCM hub on Max is not curated by anyone from TCM. It’s not really “curated” at all, in the sense of being selected and organized using expert knowledge. The hub icon might as well just say “movies” since the content does not reflect the concurrent programming on TCM. On a recent browse, the dominant theme seemed to be creative ways to categorize Godzilla movies. It’s not that Godzilla movies aren’t classic or don’t deserve a platform (they are and they do). The point is that at TCM, there are people that know better than to call Godzilla the hero of the film Godzilla.


In the early 80s, Warner Communications (as it was then known) was also in a precarious financial position. One strategy for saving the company used by CEO Steve Ross was to protect the film studio and the relationships with the filmmakers. As explained in WBD’s own documentary, 100 Years of Warner Bros., this strategy led to creatively and monetarily lucrative relationships with filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorsese, and Tim Burton, and acclaimed films including The Color Purple, Goodfellas, and yes, Batman.

Like an echo of Ross in the 80s, Zaslav claims that he wants Warner Bros. to be a studio for filmmakers. However, as WBD continues to make decisions which diminish cinematic preservation and devalue film history, any filmmaker would be rightfully suspicious of that claim.

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Lani Gonzalez

Lani Gonzalez has appeared as a guest programmer on Turner Classic Movies and occasionally writes about what she sees at Cinema Then and Now.

4 thoughts on “Is TCM In Trouble?

  • June 26, 2023 at 6:33 pm

    I’ve noticed that lately TCM has been playing more movies from the 70’s, 80’s and even the 90’s. That’s not what I signed up for.

    • July 9, 2023 at 9:56 pm

      As hard as it may be for long-time fans to accept, TCM will have to start showing movies from the ’70’s and 80’s because those ones are also old (Superman: The Movie is close to fifty years old now and is not a new movie in any shape of the term) and the older fans who love all of the movies from the 1900’s-1960’s are dying off, with no younger people (Gen-Y and Gen-Z, primarily) interested in the older ones from past eras like the 1900’s-1960’s epoch. This does not mean that TCM has to abandon all of the 1900’s-1960’s movies, however, it just means that it has to also mix it up a little and also show movies from the 70’s and ’80’s in addition to the ususal movies from the 1900’s-1960’s ‘Golden Age’ epoch (said Golden Age also means showing foreignn films of the past as well.)

  • June 27, 2023 at 10:54 am

    I have loved TCM for many years. I have the app on my phone. I used to watch TCM as often as my schedule permit me. Over these last months, there is less and less to watch. Any of my favorites get one run and don’t get time in the app. If I miss it, then I don’t get a chance to watch it later. Movies that were on a week or two ago get recycled constantly. I understand that things have changed and TCM has lost lots of movies, but it’s ridiculous now. Show more cartoons if you haven’t anything else!

  • July 9, 2023 at 10:49 pm

    What’s going on with Warner Discovery only confirms that the United States is in dire need of a ton of trustbusting, and the media should be at the top of said list (Clear Channel in particular); these mergers aren’t doing anything but messing up culture. The fans of TCm should be writing their congresspersons and/or senators and making them reverse all of these media mergers.


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