There's a bit of a war going on in cable-TV land, and the winners appear to be movie lovers everywhere.
American Movie Classics (AMC), which for years dominated the vintage-movies niche on cable television, is being challenged by Turner Classic Movies (TCM). The result is a slew of good movies and programmers who keep a wary eye on what the competition is doing, being sure to match their counterparts blow for blow.
March is a perfect example of the competition that has developed. TCM, which has the advantage of access to Ted Turner's nearly bottomless pit of old movies, has for several years staged its "31 Days of Oscar" festival. For the entire month preceding the Academy Awards, it hauls out films that won in all sorts of categories: Best Picture, Best Actor or Actress, Best Screenplay, whatever.
Each night, the channel spotlights a certain category. Earlier this month, an evening of Best Actor winners featured Robert De Niro in "Raging Bull," Maximilian Schell in "Judgment at Nuremberg," Sidney Poit-ier in "Lilies of the Field" and Peter Finch in "Network." A slate of special-effects winners included "Mighty Joe Young," "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," "Logan's Run" and "2010: The Year We Made Contact."
AMC doesn't have the same resources TCM does (Turner, remember, owns the MGM film library, meaning a huge chunk of Oscar winners is off-limits to AMC). Still, programmers there have hardly ignored the awards. They've scheduled at least one winner every night this month. The roster has been impressive, including Best Picture winners "All Quiet on the Western Front," "Going My Way" and "The Best Years of Our Lives"; Best Actress winners Olivia de Havilland ("To Each His Own"), Maggie Smith ("The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie") and Vivien Leigh ("A Streetcar Named Desire"); and Best Director winners Elia Kazan ("Gentlemen's Agreement"), Billy Wilder ("The Lost Weekend") and John Ford ("The Grapes of Wrath").
And it isn't only at Oscar time that the two channels keep a wary eye on one another. When George Burns died last week, both channels threw tributes on the air, AMC with two hours' worth of Burns and Allen short films from the early 1930s, TCM with his Oscar-winning turn in "The Sunshine Boys." (When Gene Kelly died last month, TCM had a near-monopoly on tributes, as Kelly did almost all his work for MGM.)
All this may make the folks at TCM and AMC a little nervous, but for movie lovers, it's as though someone had opened the floodgates. What's more, the films are presented in ways that help viewers appreciate them. Hosts offer a few words of introduction and perspective (AMC's Bob Dorian is still as good as they come here), the prints are usually pretty clean and movies made in wide-screen are often shown in letter-box format (with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen), so what you're seeing on television is what you (or your parents) saw in the theaters.
Unfortunately, one problem frequently rears its ugly head. Movies from the past 30 years or so are censored for offensive language or nudity. That's understandable when a movie is shown during the day, but it seems odd to carry the policy through the night. It's hard to imagine too many kids were watching an 11 p.m. showing of "Ordinary People" recently. Still, an emotional and profanity-laden exchange between psychiatrist Judd Hirsch and patient Timothy Hutton was badly dubbed (I somehow doubt Hutton originally said Hirsch had married "a big fat woman").
Neither side claims to be trying to bury the other; in fact, officials are repeatedly quoted as saying they welcome the competition and insisting there's plenty of product to go around. Locally, most cable systems outside the city carry both. Baltimore's TCI Communications offers only AMC.
Still, the history of cable television is peppered with instances of competing channels with similar programming eventually merging (both A&E; and Comedy Central are such conglomerates).
Let's hope both AMC and TCM can hang around. While they do, the benefit to movie lovers is endless.
If you're free today, why not bop on over to Baltimore's 5th Regiment Armory for the second annual People's Expo, sponsored by the Radio One network?
The two-day festival ends today. Hours are noon to 8 p.m. Featured are such artists as gospel singers Edwin & Walter Hawkins and Family and the great blues singer Clarence Carter. Actor George O. Gore II, from the TV series "New York Undercover" will be available for autographs. More than 100 vendors will be there, and a variety of entertainment for children will be available for sampling.
The Radio One network includes WERQ-FM (92.3), WWIN-FM (95.9), WWIN-AM (1400) and WOLB-AM (1010).
Glenn Miller galore
Big-band lovers take note: Glenn Miller is back on the air.
"Glenn Miller: Memory Maker," a 12-hour chronicle of Miller's career, will be broadcast in one-hour segments, 1 p.m.-2 p.m., March 16-April 5 on WJG-AM (1360 Baltimore, 1330 Havre de Grace).
The broadcast features at least one selection from each of the Glenn Miller orchestra's 71 recording sessions, and selections from his two motion-picture soundtracks and interviews with his contemporaries.
The show will be broadcast from noon to midnight April 7.
Pub Date: 3/17/96