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TCM stays classic as other channels change

Eva Marie Saint in 1954's "On the Waterfront."

Eva Marie Saint in 1954's "On the Waterfront." Credit: TCM

Remember how great it was when cable first offered that niche channel you'd always wanted?

TV Land's launch revived memorable tube treats "Hill Street Blues" and "Honey West." TNN showed down-home diversions like lawn-mower racing. History went wall-to-wall with, well, history. There was something for everyone.

But today? Cable may hold 10 times more channels, yet they tend to look alike. TV Land seems to spotlight five familiar shows. TNN morphed into Spike's endless runs of "Cops" and 007 flicks. History prefers "Pawn Stars" and "Ax Men" to, well, history. Everybody else shows "Law & Order." (Fact: Some "L&O" iteration now runs on nine national channels.)

What's the point of taking a TV niche to heart? The channel will just throw over fervent fans, to pursue passing remote clicks by showing the same sludge everyone else does. Can no channel keep faith with its most ardent aficionados?

Ah, yes -- Turner Classic Movies. Bless its trusty film sprockets. TCM launched on basic cable 20 years ago this month (April 14, 1994) by showing 24/7 feature films, short subjects, movie trailers and Hollywood interviews. All uncut. Commercial-free. Presented with respect for the medium.

And its fans. Surprise! The TCM of 20 years ago looks remarkably like TCM today. If anything, the channel has enriched its commitment to movie lovers in step with evolving technology and lifestyles. Along comes the Web, and delivers detailed schedules, insightful essays, a comprehensive database and multimedia goodies. On-the-go gadgets inspired the free app Watch TCM, where channel subscribers can access classic movies anywhere, anytime, by computer or mobile device.

Bolstered by parent company Time Warner's vast golden-age film libraries and wide-ranging media ties, TCM now extends far beyond the video screen. Its imprint is found in books, DVD sets, movie location tours, cruises with cinema legends and an annual classic film festival in Hollywood. (Please come to New York!)

All of which merely bolsters TCM's original mission to honor "classic movies," whether you take "classic" to mean "superb" or just "vintage." About 350 titles a month are carefully scheduled into lineups oozing cinema savvy -- linked by an actor, like this week's John Wayne (see box), a theme like today's '60s romps with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello (including "Beach Party" at 9:15 a.m.), a nation like Australia in May. (TCM also has sass. May 6's daytime titles all contain the word "scarlet.") I paid good money to go to film school and '80s revival houses hunting hard-to-find delights. Now, you can stay home and get pretty swell film tutelage through TCM.

It satisfies the silent movie devotee. The foreign film fan. The lover of fairy tales (Saturday night) or fierce Sam Fuller (April 29 daytime), Jeanette MacDonald operettas (May 1) or Henry Jaglom indies (May 29), Johnny Carson chats (Saturday mornings) or cult curios (last week: "Disco Godfather"). No niche is too obscure for TCM to serve.

Let other channels change names, shift strategies or otherwise jilt faithful fans. Twenty years on, Turner Classic Movies remains committed. It's a marriage that makes TV heaven.

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