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Layoffs at Turner Classic Movies have movie fans and Hollywood legends concerned

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

For nearly 30 years, Turner Classic Movies has been the place for people to watch and learn about celebrated films of the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Over 350 classics from the world's largest movie library and not a commercial in sight.

RASCOE: But after some high-profile layoffs at TCM recently, some movie fans and Hollywood bigwigs sounded the alarm, many of them worried that changes at the company would alter and diminish the beloved classic movie resource. To talk more about the latest at TCM and the company's future, we called Dade Hayes. He's Deadline's business editor, and he joins us now. Hi there.

DADE HAYES: Hi there.

RASCOE: OK, so for the folks that don't know, like, what's been happening at Turner Classic Movies lately? Like, what's behind the layoffs, and why were people getting so worried about this?

HAYES: Well, in the spring of 2022, WarnerMedia and Discovery came together in a $43 billion merger. It was one of the biggest deals in media history. And any time there's a merger, you know there's going to be cost-cutting on the other side. So that's really been the narrative at Warner Bros. Discovery, the combined company over the last year or so - deep, deep layoffs, billions of dollars in cost savings. They've looked everywhere, sold off a lot of business. I was talking to one person there who said they would sell the furniture if they could. I mean, it's that type of environment right now. And the economy's not great.

So they're really desperate to slim down their operation. And they looked at Turner Classic Movies. And this is a, you know, beloved brand, and it resonates differently when you start cutting in that environment than it does other parts of the business. And so people immediately leapt to the conclusion that, you know, something drastic was going to change. Now, officially, Warner Discovery says that's not so. But they did remove the GM and several other senior-level executives, and it just made people wonder.

RASCOE: I mean, at this point, you know, a lot of times, it'll just be people online kind of screaming into the void. But in this issue, Hollywood's biggest legends got involved - right? - Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson. Like, what were they concerned about?

HAYES: Well, they really view TCM as a cultural resource and something for the public even though it, obviously, is a for-profit business. You know, they look at the heritage of TCM. I mean, it's three decades old. It plays a role in, you know, film preservation and film education. They take it quite seriously. And, you know, I'm inclined to be sympathetic to that view. But they basically wanted to head this off at the pass.

They had actually been completely shocked in 2018 when WarnerMedia, back before it was part of Discovery, had shut down a service called FilmStruck, a streaming service that shows a lot of the same movies that appear on TCM. And that also caused a huge amount of backlash in the film community with dozens of directors and others weighing in. But it was too late, you know? They just weren't able to reactivate that service. So in this case, they're just basically trying to get out in front of it and say, hey, you're stripping this thing down. You're taking the top management away. And that's not OK. They wanted their voices heard.

RASCOE: And so they end up having calls with David Zaslav, who's the head of Warner Bros. Discovery. And did those calls have an impact?

HAYES: It appears that they did. Late Friday, Deadline reported - and some others - that they have handed the reins of TCM to the heads of the film studio, Warner Bros. Pictures. Pamela Abdy and Michael De Luca, who run the studio, are going to oversee TCM. It's an unusual arrangement.

And, you know, let's be clear. It doesn't appear that they're going to be setting the programming schedule or promotional budgets or sort of the things that people do when they run a cable network. Their expertise is film. So they're really going to be kind of, you know, curators and overseers of what programming appears on TCM. And I think that will appease a lot of the critics and a lot of the people who were concerned. It's definitely, in the short term, a victory, and then we'll have to watch it from here.

RASCOE: Can fans of classic movies sleep easy tonight about the security of TCM?

HAYES: I think there's still reason to be concerned. I wish I could be more encouraging, but I have covered this company for many incarnations back even before David Zaslav was on the scene, and I've also covered his reign at Discovery. And it's just going to continue to be about profit. You know, the interesting irony is that TCM is quite profitable. It has some of the highest margins in cable. But it doesn't take advertising, so it's very dependent on being carried on pay TV systems. And it just, you know, needs a vitality. It needs a reason for people to tune in. So it just sort of remains to be seen in this on-demand streaming world if a linear channel can figure it out. I mean, the odds are unfortunately stacked against it. But this is a little bit of a ray of sunshine. It's not quite a Hollywood ending, but I think it's an encouraging sign. At least nothing in the immediate term is going to change.

RASCOE: That's Deadline business editor Dade Hayes. Thank you so much for being on the show.

HAYES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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