Why Paula Zahn, Guy Fieri and Other Unscripted Notables May Be Marching to TCM

Paula Zahn isn’t known for her colorful analysis of America’s great films. And yet, on Monday night, she will appear on TCM with critic Eddie Muller, ready to hash over a series of noir delights such as “In Cold Blood” and “I Want To Live.”

Zahn may best be remembered for stints on CNN, CBS News and Fox News Channel and, more recently, a substantial decade-plus tenure on Investigation Discovery analyzing true crime stories. In a different era, she and Muller might not have occasion to meet.

In the current epoch, however, their fates are intertwined. Both personalities work for Warner Bros. Discovery, the media giant that has been forged out of TV portfolios previously owned by AT&T, Time Warner, Discovery Communications and Scripps Networks. Executives think TCM, a cable network with a rabid fanbase devoted to classic films, may just represent a sort of linchpin that helps push fans of different topics to programming they might not otherwise watch.

“I have no problem whatsoever bringing in people who aren’t film people per se to talk about movies,” says Muller, during a recent interview, adding: “My job as I see it is really keeping these movies alive for a new generation, and generations to come.”

In the not-too-distant future, other Warner Bros. Discovery celebrities might pay a visit to TCM. Imagine Food Network’s Guy Fieri or HGTV’s Property Brothers stopping by for an evening to talk about movies devoted to eating or the notable real estate seen in certain pictures. Kathleen Finch, chairman and chief content officer of Warner’s U.S. cable networks, envisions alerting sports fans who watch NBA games on TNT to sports-themed moves on TCM, and says discussions are already taking place around a “dinner and a movie” concept that might have a Food Network personality offering cuisine tips during a TCM film.

The company wants “to get louder with a megaphone” about what TCM offers, says Finch, in a recent interview. “This is an opportunity to plus up and make more noise about a network that is absolutely beloved by movie fans. What can we do to grow it, nurture it, take care of it, and expose it to as many new fans as we possibly can?” The company’s huge cable portfolio means it often connects with a sizable chunk of every night’s viewership — creating an  opportunity to lead those audiences to content they may not typically consider.

TCM isn’t the biggest business in the Warner portfolio. Indeed, its subscriber base was expected to shrink approximately 7.5% in 2022, according to data from Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. The network’s subscriber base was projected to fall to 52.1 million in 2022, compared with 56.3 million in 2021. Affiliate revenue was seen tumbling about 4.7% to approximately $262.7 million last year.  TCM doesn’t run commercials, but it does boast a panoply of events and clubs affiliated with its movie curation.

Warner Bros. Discovery asserts its control over the network as predictions for cable-outlet health grow more dire. Many big media companies have starved their cable holdings of content investment while they put those dollars to work in streaming venues. That has left several prominent cable holdings looking like so-called “FAST channels,” or ad-supported streaming offerings that play a single series hour after hour in a bid to entice binge viewers.

TCM, however, also thrives on library content. But it’s more artfully deployed, curated around current events or interesting themes. In 2021, for example, TCM placed emphasis on conversations around seminal films with depictions of gender or race that are long outmoded, and even offensive.

The classic-movies outlet may also have pull beyond its cable roost. TCM is one of the hubs on HBO Max, the Warner Bros. Discovery streaming outlet that is poised to grow in 2023 when the company merges it with the unscripted programming of Discovery+. TCM’s corporate parent is also marking the 100th anniversary of the Warner Bros. studio throughout this year.

TCM isn’t opening its studio to any movie fan with an opinion and a loud voice. But executives say they are interested in bringing people on whose subject-matter expertise might prove compelling. “For us it’s all about authenticity of interest,” says Pola Changnon, TCM’s general manager. “We don’t believe you have to be an academic or a film historian.”

TCM’s regular hosts aren’t likely to be replaced by such guests, says Finch, because part of TCM’s appeal is found in hosts who provide context around each of its movies and the curation of films around specific themes and artists.  

But more experiments certainly seem likely. Muller thinks he would do well to bring on attorneys who could comment on some of the action in courtroom dramas. The lawyers could “say, ‘This was the right move’ or ‘This would never happen,’” he suggests. One or more of CNN’s legal-beat journalists would no doubt be interested.

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