LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 28: General Manager at TCM Jennifer Dorian (L) and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz attend the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 Opening Night After Party on April 28, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner
Photo: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner

TCM (Turner Classic Movies) celebrates 25 years: a talk with GM Jennifer Dorian

Originally posted Thursday, April 11, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Atlanta-based Turner Classic Movies (TCM) debuted humbly on April 14, 1994 in a handful of markets playing the 1939 classic “Gone With the Wind,” accessing a vault of more than 3,000 films from Turner Broadcasting’s library. 

A quarter century later, TCM has survived three owners, the growth of the Internet and multiple shifts in viewing habits to remain as it began: a 24/7, commercial-free showcase for older films, mostly from the 1930s through the 1960s. 

Jennifer Dorian, who joined TCM as general manager in 2014 and has worked with Turner for 19 years, is now the standard-bearer, nurturing a dedicated fan base with a popular film festivalan annual cruise and its own fan club. TCM is now considered a “lifestyle brand” more than a mere “cable network.”

I talked to Dorian by phone Thursday hours before the launch of the 10th annual TCM Film Festival in Hollywood April 11 to 14. Here are excerpts: 

AJC: Why do you think TCM has endured despite all the changes that have happened in TV viewing since 1994

Dorian: I think TCM has endured because it’s never lost its way. It’s been focused on one specific unique proposition: to be the home for classic films and present them uncut and commercial free. We never strayed from that. The promise and execution has built a lot of goodwill. Fans know what to expect from TCM. 

AJC: Over the years, other cable networks strayed from their original mission. MTV started with music videos and now runs reality shows. The Learning Channel is now TLC with shows about little people. American Movie Classics, your closest competitor, is better known now for zombies as AMC. How have you stayed the course?

Dorian: I’ve been part of strategic planning at Turner for 19 years. I can vouch we’ve never questioned the TCM mission or strategy. By staying commercial free, we offered something special to distributors and fans. Those other channels you mentioned all relied on advertisers and needed to pursue strategies that drew ratings. TCM was liberated from that. Our job was to build a home for classic films that provides distributors a quality commercial-free movie service. 

AJC: While I’m sure you have plenty of older viewers, it seems like you draw new generations, sort of like classic rock music. 

Dorian: TCM has appeal to many audiences, folks of all ages and geographies. We have a tribe of like-minded people. The film festival is one of the most lovely displays of our fan base. Our 25 guest fans in April offering dedications range in age from 14 to 84. New generations get into classic movies often because of an older relative who just enjoyed the relaxing nature of watching films. They get hooked by the great stars and stories. 

HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 25: Host Robert Osborne attends the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival Opening Night Gala screening of "Funny Girl" at the TCL Chinese Theatre on April 25, 2013 in Hollywood, California.
Photo: (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

AJC: How important was Robert Osborne in terms of building the reputation of the channel?

Dorian: Robert was a critical personification of everything we were doing. His credibility of being in the Hollywood system in the 1950s onward. Being a historian of the Academy Awards. Being a writer for the Hollywood Reporter. Plus, he had a charming personality. His composure and warm personality on air was so welcoming to people. He forged a personality in the early days of being an expert without being a know it all. He brought expertise without pretension. 

AJC: How were you able to create a team to effectively replace him once he passed?

Dorian: With Robert’s passing, it was an opportunity for us to think about the ideal roster of hosts, how we could develop a team that would have capacity to do more. Ben Mankiewicz is our primary host. He’s the voice of the network now. He shares a lot of the DNA with Robert. They’re both former journalists who care about good research, writing and storytelling. Ben also has that Hollywood history. We also love his unique personality and his chemistry with the fans are great. But we didn’t want to overtax him. So we hired Alicia Malone and Dave Karger last year as full-time hosts. Alicia is a breath of fresh air. She’s been a fan across the globe. Dave is another academic expert and we love what he provides. 

AJCHow have you kept the movie mix fresh?

Dorian: TCM is a definitely a network that licenses movies from all studios. We’ve decided not to declare a mark in time when something becomes classic. We reserved the right to create themes and pull movies from all of film history. Sometimes, we do air more modern movies. During our “31 Days of Oscar,” we have movies from the 1920s to 2011. If we do a retrospective of, say, Jane Fonda, we would want to feature some of her more recent work. About 15 percent of our films are from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s but a majority are from the 1930s to the 1960s. That’s our sweet spot and makes us unique and it’s what our fans really crave. 

AJC: What did you bring to the equation when you took over in 2014?

Dorian: I’m complementary to the mix. I’m not a classic film afficionado the way the staff is. They are the experts, the film studies majors, the film festival runners. I bring brand marketing perspective and focus on fan needs. When I began working with TCM in 2009, we started plotting out this fan-centric strategy. Our fans want to eat, live and breathe movies. We’re a television network. How do we get involved in their day-to-day lives? We came up with the festival, the cruise, the movie screenings of classic films. I’m really proud of our fan club. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 07: Director Peter Bogdanovich, vice president, brand activations/partnerships, Turner Classic Movies Genevieve McGillicuddy and general manager of TCM Jennifer Dorian attend "A Conversation with Peter Bogdanovich" during the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival on April 7, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. 26657_004 (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for TCM)
Photo: Emma McIntyre

AJC: In the AT&T restructuring, TCM was placed in the same division as Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. Can you explain why?

Dorian: That was confusing. The ultimate answer is we’re excited to be tucked into the Warner Brothers corporate family. It’s great for us to move closer to the big film library. We’re connected to a movie studio that values films and understands films. They can help us achieve greater possibilities growing worldwide and creating more fan experiences. There is some commonalities with Cartoon Network and Adult Swim: we are all trying to go global and become stronger brands.

AJC: Since AT&T has taken over, have you been at all worried about TCM’s long-term future? Has top management said anything directly to you?

Dorian: We feel support and enthusiasm from AT&T and from WarnerMedia. TCM has never been stronger in the cable universe. WarnerMedia appreciates a brand that consumers care about. They’ve been very positive and praising our connection with our fans. 

AJC: Ted Turner started this network. What is his legacy 25 years later with TCM besides the name?

Dorian: Having been at Turner for 19 years, I’ve always been inspired by Ted’s vision and maverick spirit. Sincerely, we have been saying insider Turner, don’t lose your inner Ted. Keep the fierce flame alive. Stay hungry for new things. Keep inventing... He’s our godfather, our founder. We wouldn’t have existed without him. It was Ted who saw the value in classic films even in the early days at WTCG in the 1970s. He knew they were under-valued and led to this idea of a 24-hour network. We’re grateful he’s going to be here at the festival for the 25th anniversary. It’s very special. 

The film TCM has aired the most is “Casablanca.”

FUN FACTS ABOUT TCM

First movie ever to air on TCM: Gone with the Wind (1939), which has since been shown more than 60 times.

Oldest films to air on TCM: Annie Oakley, Bucking Bronco and Sioux Ghost Dance, all from 1894.

Newest film to air on TCM: Hugo and The Artist, both from 2011

Most frequently aired movie on TCM: Casablanca (1942), which has aired 150 times.

Number of on-air appearances by Robert Osborne: 62,851

Number of on-air appearances by Ben Mankiewicz: 20,077

Robert Osborne's favorite interview for TCM: Kermit the Frog

Ben Mankiewicz’s favorite interview: Actress Sophia Loren at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival

Number of local chapters in Backlot, TCM’s official fan club: 34

Number of TCM Classic Cruises: Six, with the seventh setting sail in Oct. 2019

CREDIT: TCM

American actor Clark Gable (1901 - 1960) in his role as Rhett Butler kissing the hand of a tearful Scarlett O'Hara, played by Vivien Leigh in 'Gone With The Wind'. It was the first film TCM ever aired. 
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Highlights for the anniversary on TCM

  • April 14th Anniversary Salute - to celebrate its Silver Anniversary, TCM will air films from its first ever programming lineup in 1994 including Gone With the Wind (1939), It Happened One Night (1934), The Petrified Forest (1936) and Cat People(1942)
  • 25 Fan Guest Programmers – April 15th-26th – as part of a two-week primetime special, 25 of TCM’s biggest fans will join host Ben Mankiewicz as guest programmers, offering dedications of their favorite films of all time. Picked from a fan dedication contest, fans from all backgrounds and all over the U.S., are brought together through their love of classic film to help TCM celebrate 25 years on the air
  • TCM Specials – April 29th - in honor of Robert Osborne's memory, TCM will present six specials from the TCM vault, including The Best of Private Screenings, a compilation of segments from Osbornes’ series of intimate interviews, hosted by Ben Mankiewicz. Also airing that evening are Private Screenings: Robert OsborneRobert Osborne’s 20th Anniversary TributePrivate Screenings: Liza Minnelli and Live From The TCM Classic Film Festival: Norman Lloyd

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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