Why TCM Underground Mattered
The curated series acknowledged that cult movies are just as important to film history as ‘Gone With The Wind’
Turner Classic Movies announced on Wednesday, February 22 that it has cancelled the TCM Underground programming block, with the final film airing under that banner on Friday, February 24. The announcement came two months after the firing of longtime Underground programmer Millie DeChirico. This is the latest decision by TCM’s parent company, Warner Brothers Discovery, to rile up film fans, a streak which began last year with changes to the HBO Max streaming service and the unceremonious deletion of many HBO Max original films from that platform. In January, Fathom Events announced that TCM had ended their participation in Fathom’s Big Screen Classics screening series. The shuttering of TCM Underground & and the Fathom partnership are part of a restructuring tied to ongoing cost-cutting measures by WBD. However, in the face of WBD’s over $40 billion of debt, the costs of licensing fees for the Underground films and the single staff member required to program it seem like a drop in the bucket.
TCM Underground launched in 2006 as a weekly late-night double feature of cult films from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It was a cousin to other basic cable B-movie programming like USA’s Up All Night and TNT’s Monstervision, but with the touch of class provided by the TCM brand.
In the years since the Underground began airing, the space separating arthouse and grindhouse has shrunk. And that’s a good thing. Because a real cinephile wants to see everything–from Oscar-winners to exploitation films. Cult movies are just as important to film history as Casablanca and Gone with the Wind.
The Underground was where anyone with a cable package could discover a range of Blaxploitation films—from goofy Dolemite to arty Ganja & Hess—and horror films, including the truly wild Hausu and silent-era oddity Haxan. There were serious documentaries, like the Decline of the Western Civilization trilogy, as well as straight trash like Mac and Me. And there at the bottom of the screen was the TCM logo. A stamp of approval signifying that these films were also classic cinema.
The current media landscape perpetuates the illusion that everything is available to anyone. As WBD proved, that’s not exactly true when a company can simply remove properties which have lower viewership from their platforms. Unless the provider recognizes an inherent value in classic film and film history, it has no incentive to make lesser-known or older titles available just in case a viewer might stumble upon them. The streaming algorithms are designed to serve up A) the tentpole films and series of the platform, regardless of your level of interest, and B) content that is exactly like what you’ve already watched.
By contrast, the Underground block, like all programming on TCM, was curated. And the curation mattered. They selected each film with thought and purpose, and presented them for us to discover. It didn’t just file them among thousands of titles in a database waiting for people to pull them up via search terms. Because how can you search for a movie if you don’t even know it exists? Sure, you might wish that there was a movie that combined gymnastics and karate, but what would that even be called? Gymkata. That film is called Gymkata and it aired on TCM Underground.
With the demise of video stores and curated programming like TCM Underground, these cult films risk drifting further into obscurity. DeChirico has compiled a list on Letterboxd of every feature film that aired on Underground. If you are looking for something weird or wonderful to watch, that’s a good place to start.
One thought on “Why TCM Underground Mattered”
Loosing Underground will loose TCM….