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 the late Robert Osborne 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 and Get TV 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. And none of them offer a streaming option.
With the current state of linear television, it's clear there's no space for a new channel, especially one featuring programming that is as financially challenging as often obscure classic television. And to be honest, who wants to mess with all the carriage and clearance issues involved in a new linear channel when you can go straight to the streaming television market?
It's clear there's a need for a TCM-like streaming home 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. There needs to be a well-curated app and social media that help to drive subscriber retention.
The financial success question is a bit more complicated and it's tied up together with the technical issues involved in streaming classic television. Much of the potential programming for a classic TV streaming service hasn't been digitized and/or doesn't have the contracts in place to allow streaming of the titles. Like in film, many of the titles are likely in need of some "cleaning up," particularly ones that haven't been broadcast in many decades. So while it's not as expensive as paying for the rights of better known TV titles, there is a real financial cost involved and with a likely monthly subscription fee of $4.99 a month, budgets might be tight.
But what an opportunity for television fans.
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 "Ed?" And let's 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.
Television is arguably in its greatest creative period in history. But as impressive as the present might be, it's important to not forget our past. The television industry deserves its own streaming home and when it gets it, I hope they have a programming job for me.