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No Looking at You, Kid

Once TV's haven for film buffs, AMC has turned its back on a loyal audience in search of a broader one. If only it stuck to its mission like TCM does.

July 21, 2002|SUSAN KING

American Movie Classics observed its 10th anniversary by issuing a colorful poster to celebrate "Ten Years of Dedication to the Classics." Decorating the poster were pictures of Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper and the outlet's genial host, Bob Dorian, as well as a banner headline proclaiming: "Entering Its 10th Year, Cable's American Movie Classics Remains a Movie Fan's Best Friend."

For nearly 14 years, AMC was one of my best friends. It was the place to go to see uncut, uninterrupted classics, from Katharine Hepburn's first film, 1932's "Bill of Divorcement," to Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier in 1957's "The Prince and the Showgirl." Not only was the schedule chockablock full of golden oldies, but Dorian, an actor, was folksy and funny--the heart and soul of AMC.

The cable channel, now nearly 20 years old, also produced award-winning specials that profiled such stars of yesteryear as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, and explored intriguing topics, including early women directors and the Hollywood blacklist. Its first original dramatic series, "Remember WENN," was a sweet, nostalgic look at the heyday of radio that had a small but devoted following. And for the past nine years, AMC has held film preservation festivals to educate movie fans on the necessity of restoring and preserving vintage films and to raise funds for the nation's film archives.

Over the past few years, however, the joy has gone out of the network. Truth be told, I have only watched one movie on AMC this year--the 1955 Jimmy Stewart drama, "Strategic Air Command," on Independence Day.

AMC has changed radically, and it's going to change even more. A few years ago, it began showing commercials between films, adding "intermissions" during its movies last October. Granted, the network interrupts a film only once, but it's disheartening to see ads for Paxil in between watching Stewart romance June Allyson.

Dorian is now retired and lives in South Carolina, and the much younger, competent, but far less charismatic John Burke has replaced him. Although AMC continues to run films from the '30s, '40s and '50s, more and more contemporary films from the '80s and '90s like "The Deer Hunter," "Brubaker," "Next Stop, Greenwich Village," "The Verdict" and "Grand Canyon" have been creeping into the schedule, and are in heavy rotation on the network.

Because AMC is basic cable, it has to show the "director approved" TV-edited versions of these films in prime time. Not only are nudity and language edited out of the R-rated fare, even PG films such as the 1972 "Sleuth" have been edited for content and time. Yet recent specials have such sensationalized titles as "Sins of Hollywood" and "Shirtless: Hollywood's Sexiest Men." The 10th annual film preservation festival set for September will also be contemporized--concentrating on rock movies of the '70s.

AMC is owned and managed by the Long Island, N.Y.-based Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. The company did the same turnabout with Bravo. That network began as a premium cable outlet for foreign and art films and arts programming, then started editing films for content when it went basic and slowly introduced commercials with the unveiling of more and more original programming. Rainbow's WE: Women's Entertainment network also now shows commercials; only Rainbow's Independent Film Channel has remained commercial-free. So far.

Beginning in October, AMC will add more contemporary titles to its playlist and offer more original programming designed to appeal to a "younger, broader audience." Theses changes will also coincide with an increase in commercials, although admittedly far fewer than most basic cable networks. To satisfy older viewers, the network is spinning off a digital, commercial-free outlet, AMC's Hollywood Classics, that will air the movies that used to be the network's mainstay.

Kate McEnroe, president of AMC Networks, didn't seem very upset when I told her I was no longer watching the network. "You'll have to watch Hollywood Classics," she said matter-of-factly. Addressing the changes at AMC, she explained: "What happened is time has moved forward. This has been an evolution, not a revolution. What I like to say is no brand is immortal. Even the Wall Street Journal had to get their act together and reformat."

Maybe so, but I'm not the only one upset by AMC's changes. Several friends and co-workers also have abandoned the network. Producer Peter Jones, grandson of old-time movie star Conrad Nagel, shares my opinion of the revamped AMC. "It's awful," he said.

Jones worked for AMC for roughly seven years, producing snappy, fun features about old Hollywood. They parted company in 1994, and he currently produces episodes of A&E's "Biography" series and documentaries for Turner Classic Movies, the 8-year-old nostalgia channel that has remained commercial-free.

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