If you're a fan of old movies, the cable channel Turner Classic Movies is the answer to your prayers. It airs a wide range of classic and under-appreciated films, uncut and commercial-free. It features the insights of hosts such as Robert Osbourne and Ben Mankiewicz, interviews with industry insiders, original documentaries and specials. The channel has its own film festival and produces original DVDs and books. It truly is a one-stop destination for serious movie fans.
Despite the ever-growing interest in television history, there isn't a similar home for the classic TV fan. Sure, TV Land started out as a place to see old episodes, but it morphed into its current mix of original retro-style comedies and endless airings of "The Andy Griffith Show." And several digital TV channels such as MeTV air a schedule jammed with old shows. But they present them in a non-curated, commercial-heavy format that makes it difficult to appreciate the episodes.
It's clear there's a need for a TCM for TV shows, but once you get past that point, there are two main questions. What does the programming schedule look like and how do you make it a financial success?
The programming question is probably the easiest one to solve. You need a mix of little-known shows along with better-known classics that are presented in a more thoughtful way. You need access to the vaults of Universal TV or Warner Brothers or Fox and the ability to air everything from broken pilots to forgotten 60s variety shows. You don't need a big budget for original programming, but ideally you have enough to record interviews you can wrap around episodes of shows viewers have seen many times before. You want there to be a sense of surprise and the feeling that the network is run by true fans of television, good or bad.
The financial success question really is another way of trying to find a place on the TV dial for the network. When TCM launched 20 years ago, Turner was able to push it onto cable systems by using its other networks as leverage. And while TCM has moved from extended basic to the digital tier on most systems, it's been around long enough to be available in 85 million homes. So its modest subscriber fee is enough to keep the network in the black.
Launching a new classic TV channel would be difficult. Getting sufficient carriage would be nearly impossible, given the existence of other classic TV networks and the industry move towards holding down the costs of new programming. There aren't many options for flipping an existing channel either. NBCU's G4 is a placeholder for now, but that media company doesn't seem inclined to go the classic TV route. It already runs several niche digital channels such as Chiller that manage to exist with almost no resources or programming budget. The TV Guide Channel would have been a logical place for the net, but new ownership seems to preclude that. Maybe you could move Reelz to an all-TV format (it's already headed that way). But Reelz doesn't have a huge reach and lacks the deep pockets of a major media company owner.
Which brings us to a solution that might sound a bit nuts on the face of it. But once you consider the business model, it makes a lot of sense.
Netflix should launch a secondary service "Netflix Classic TV" that it markets as an add-on programming choice for subscribers. Charge two or three dollars a month and allow subscribers to either add it on to their current Netflix account, or buy it separately.
From the perspective of Netflix, it makes a lot of sense. The company already has the business connections with the studios and can wrap negotiations for the older programs into discussions that include the newer programs. Netflix is looking for additional revenue streams and it faces the difficulty of not being able to easily raise the price of its standard Netflix streaming service. Classic TV programming is also going to be much cheaper than the company pays for the newer and/or better known programming. And that lowered acquisition costs would allow Netflix to make money even at a $2 price point. The streaming infrastructure is already in place and the classic TV format doesn't have a lot of overlap with its current programming. Sure, it's not going to have the subscription base off the standard Netflix service, but it's easy to see it grabbing tens of millions of paying customers in a few years.
Imagine being able to binge on "Manimal" or titles from the MTM library. Wouldn't you pay a couple of bucks a month to be able to see that "Wonder Woman" pilot or episodes of "Wonder Showzen?" And lets not forget little-seen episodes of classic game shows or food programs. I can also see a scenario where the service would air interviews and other original documentary programming related to the history of television.
Netflix Classic TV is a win-win for both the company and fans of the television industry. I think it's an idea worth pursuing and if they're hiring, I'd be at the front of the line for one of those programming department slots.