Early history (1973–1979)
The Movie Channel traces its history to the development of Gridtronics, a pay television service which delivered videotaped movies to cable systems throughout the United States. The concept was originally developed in the late 1960s by Alfred Stern and Gordon Fuqua, both executives at multiple system operator Television Communications Corporation (TVC) at the time, as part of a multi-channel service that was designed to include channels focusing on the arts, instructional programming and medical programs. The video-to-cable movie delivery concept was presented by Fuqua and Stern at the 1969 National Cable Television Association Convention. Over the course of the next several years, the two men subsequently discussed carriage agreements with other cable providers to distribute Gridtronics and engaged in discussions with various film studios to provide film content for the service. Following the creation of Dimension Pictures, TVC was purchased by Warner Communications, the parent company of Dimension, in 1972, and gave the service the financial funding and content that it needed to launch.
Warner Communications launched the Gridtronics service on April 1, 1973. Included among its initial offerings was the Warner Star Channel (the "Warner" brand was subsequently excised from the name), a network developed as a vehicle to promote the Warner Bros. film library (notably excluding the pre-1950 film library that was owned by United Artists), as well as Dimension Pictures catalog. The channel was initially offered on systems operated by Warner Cable Communications (later Time Warner Cable, now branded as Charter Spectrum owned by Charter Communications), and was eventually made available on Warner-Amex's experimental QUBE interactive service when the company launched it in 1977. Cable providers sometimes experienced technical problems trying to transmit the delivered tapes to viewers, especially when the tapes jammed during playback.
National expansion as The Movie Channel (1979–1983)
On January 1, 1979, Star Channel became a nationally distributed service after it was uplinked to satellite, becoming the third premium service to be distributed nationally through such a transmission method (after HBO, which was uplinked to satellite in September 1975, and Showtime, which was uplinked in March 1978). In April of that year, it began to share channel and transponder space with Warner-Amex's newly launched children's network, Nickelodeon (an outgrowth of the company's former Pinwheel programming service); this resulted in the latter service switching to an encrypted signal during the regularly scheduled network transition at 10:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time on weekdays and 8:00 p.m. on weekends; Star Channel originally signed off at 4:00 a.m. Eastern and Pacific, three hours before the transponder space reverted to use by Nickelodeon.
On September 14 of that year, American Express reached an agreement with Warner Communications to buy 50% of Warner Cable Corporation for $175 million in cash and short-term notes. Through the formation of the joint venture, which was incorporated in December 1979, Star Channel and Nickelodeon were folded into Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment (later Warner-Amex Cable Communications), a company which handled the operations of the group's cable channels (Warner Cable was folded into a separate jointly owned unit, the Warner Cable Corporation). Warner-Amex executive John A. Schneider served as the company's president; other Warner-Amex staff that manned Star/The Movie Channel's initial management team included executive vice president John Lack, programming chief Robert Pittman, and Fred Seibert, who was in charge of developing on-air promotions.
On December 1, 1979, the network was relaunched as The Movie Channel; the first feature film to be broadcast on the relaunched service was the 1953 comedy Roman Holiday. On January 1, 1980, TMC discontinued its time-lease arrangement with Nickelodeon (then a sister network under the Warner, and later Viacom umbrellas) and became a 24-hour standalone service. At that point, TMC became the first premium channel to air R-rated films during the daytime hours (HBO continues to not air any R-rated films on its primary channel before 8:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time as of 2017 , except occasionally for films aired as part of its Sunday late-afternoon rebroadcast of the preceding Saturday's prime time movie premiere; TMC sister network Showtime, Cinemax, and now-defunct rival Spotlight did not run R-rated films during the daytime hours at the time, the former two surviving services would not schedule them before prime time until the late 1980s/early 1990s while another now-defunct rival Home Theater Network never ran any R-rated films by mode of that service's family-oriented format).
In 1981, The Movie Channel became one of the first television channels to broadcast movies in stereophonic audio; from that point until 1988, films presented in stereo were verbally and visually denoted in prime time lineup bumpers shown during promotional breaks within its daytime schedule – with titles for films available in stereo accompanied by the now-standard headphone symbol – and, until 1985, in a custom version of its feature presentation bumper (thereafter, films transmitted in the format were denoted along with the film rating during the latter bumper). As the standard for television broadcasts in stereo was a few years away, cable operators had to simulcast the multichannel audio feed as an FM radio signal. Interstitial segments that aired during breaks between films for much of the 1980s included Behind the Scenes (featuring biographies and interviews with actors appearing in films set to air on the network or being released theatrically), The Heart of Hollywood (borrowing its name from the slogan that TMC used concurrently during the segment's run from September 1985 to May 1988, and featuring more in-depth interviews with film stars), Reel Shorts (a showcase of live action and animated short films, which continued to air during extended breaks until 1991, by then under the "Film Shorts" moniker) and Reel Hits (featuring music videos for songs featured in films of that period and their accompanying soundtracks).
Operational merger with Showtime (1983–1985)
For much of its early years, The Movie Channel struggled in a race for subscribers in a pay television industry that pitted it among as many as seven cable-originated competitors, and even some over-the-air subscription services transmitted over independent stations in many U.S. cities such as ONTV and SelecTV. In addition to the launch of Cinemax as then-HBO parent Time Inc.'s movie-focused competitor to TMC in August 1980, the competition grew when Warner-Amex and Rainbow Media jointly launched the film and arts-focused Bravo (now a general entertainment basic cable channel, with a reality television focus) in September 1980; Walt Disney Productions threw itself into the fray when it announced plans in early 1982 to launch family-oriented The Disney Channel, a service which made its debut in April 1983 (it is now a basic cable channel, focusing mainly on children's programming).
In August 1982, MCA Inc. (then-owner of Universal Pictures), Gulf and Western Industries (then-owner of Paramount Pictures) and Warner Communications reached an agreement to jointly acquire TMC, under which the three companies would acquire a combined controlling 75% interest in the service (with each holding a 25% ownership stake) from Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment. The proposal was guided by the motive of the studios wanting to increase their revenue share for licensing movie rights to premium television services; there were also concerns by the major studios that HBO's dominance of that market and its pre-buying of pay cable rights to films prior to their theatrical release would result in an undue balance of negotiating power over them by HBO, resulting in a lower than suitable licensing fee rate that would be paid to the distributors for individual titles. The three companies officially announced their agreement in principle to acquire interests in The Movie Channel on November 11, 1982. Subsequently, in late December of that year, the U.S. Department of Justice (which had blocked a similar attempt by MCA, Gulf and Western, 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures to create a competing pay service, Premiere, in an antitrust case ruling less than two years earlier in January 1981) launched a routine preliminary inquiry into the proposed partnership.
On January 7, 1983, Viacom International added itself as a partner and drafted an amendment to the proposal to consolidate The Movie Channel with the company's own competing premium service, Showtime (which Viacom had wholly acquired in August 1982, after buying out Group W Cable's 50% interest in Showtime for $75 million). Under the revised proposal, the four studios would each own a 22.58% stake in the two networks, with American Express owning a 9.68% minority interest. In addition, the consortium would appoint a management team separate from those employed by the two channels – which would continue to operate as separate services – to operate the joint venture. However, the deal ran into regulatory hurdles since Warner, Universal and Paramount received 50% of their respective total revenue from film releases and licensing fees from premium services; furthermore, Showtime and TMC combined would control about 30% of the pay cable marketplace, creating an oligopoly with HBO (which, in conjunction with Cinemax, controlled 60% of the market).
After a four-month investigation resulted in the Department of Justice filing a civil antitrust lawsuit against the five parties to block the Showtime-TMC merger on June 10, 1983, the Department asked Warner and American Express to restructure the deal during hearings for the case. The Department's decision – citing concerns, including some expressed by HBO management, that combining the assets of Showtime and TMC would stifle competition in the sale of their programming and that of other pay cable services to cable providers – was despite the fact that, under the original proposal, MCA, Gulf and Western, and Warner had each agreed to continue licensing films released by their respective movie studios to competing pay television networks. The partners involved in the merger would also set standard prices for films that were acquired for broadcast on The Movie Channel and Showtime, either those produced by the studio partners or by unassociated film studios. To address the Justice Department's concerns over the deal, the four partners submitted another revised proposal for consideration on July 19, that included guarantees of conduct agreeing that Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros. would not receive higher residual licensing payments for films acquired by Showtime and TMC than that paid by other studios, and that all four partners would not permit the two channels in the venture to pay lower fees for films produced by the three studio partners than that paid by smaller pay television services for the same films.
After the revised proposal was rejected on July 28, Warner Communications and American Express restructured the purchase to include only Viacom as a partner, bowing Gulf and Western and MCA out of the proposed partnership. The changes – which Justice Department officials acknowledged would "prevent any anti-competitive effect from arising" following the merger, by allowing other premium services to enter the market should the venture significantly raise licensing fee prices for films – led the Justice Department to drop its challenge to the merger agreement on August 12; the Department formally approved the deal the following day on August 13. When the deal was completed on September 6, 1983, the operations of The Movie Channel and Showtime were folded into a new holding company, Showtime/The Movie Channel, Inc., which was majority owned by Viacom (controlling 50% of the venture's common stock as well as investing $40 million in cash), with Warner Communications (which owned 31%) and Warner-Amex (which owned the remaining 19% interest) as minority partners (the operational arrangement between The Movie Channel and Showtime is of a similar relationship to that between rival pay service Starz and its progenitor Starz Encore; as with Starz Encore to Starz, TMC operates as a secondary service to Showtime even though its launch, under the Star Channel brand, predates that of its parent network – Showtime launched on July 1, 1976 – by three years).
The Showtime-TMC joint venture also benefited The Movie Channel by allowing for the group to expand the channel's distribution. On December 12, 1983, the Times-Mirror Company announced that it would sell the subscriber base and transponder rights assigned to competing premium service Spotlight to Showtime-The Movie Channel, Inc. for an undisclosed price. Under the agreement, the four cable providers that backed the Spotlight venture – Times Mirror Cable, Storer Cable, Cox Cable and Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) – would offer Spotlight subscribers who subscribe to any of the systems an option to subscribe to either Showtime or The Movie Channel as a replacement, with those dissatisfied with Showtime/TMC's program offerings following a two-month sampling period during February and March permitted to exchange it for another premium channel at no charge. After Spotlight ceased operations on February 1, 1984, Spotlight subscribers who subscribed to any of the participating systems began to automatically receive The Movie Channel in markets where a provider was already carrying Showtime. (In select Spotlight markets, Showtime was added to the provider as a replacement instead if neither service had been carried prior.) Showtime-The Movie Channel President Michael Weinblatt estimated that approximately 100,000 subscribers of the four partner systems already received either Showtime or TMC, and that the absorption of Spotlight would increase the total amount of paid subscribers to both channels by at least 650,000 to about eight million subscribers nationwide.
Transfer to Viacom (1985–2005)
On August 10, 1985, after Time Inc. and cable provider Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) jointly submitted a bid to buy the company for $900 million and the assumption of $500 million in debt as well as an earlier offer by American Express the previous month to buy out Warner's share of the company (under a clause in the agreement that allowed either company the option of buying out their partner's stake in Warner-Amex), Warner Communications exercised an option to acquire American Express' 50% share of Warner-Amex Cable Communications for $450 million. Among the options, barring that it chose to sell Viacom a 50% interest in the company for $450 million, the deal originally excluded Warner-Amex's 19% interest in Showtime-The Movie Channel, Inc.; that interest would have reverted to Warner, which intended to operate Warner-Amex as a wholly owned subsidiary.
Two weeks later on August 26, Viacom acquired Warner Communications and Warner-Amex's combined 50% ownership interest in Showtime/The Movie Channel, Inc. as well as full ownership of Warner-Amex and the public shareholder interests in MTV Networks for $671.7 million. This gave Viacom exclusive ownership of both premium channels through its $500 million cash payment and acquisition of 1.625 million shares for Warner's 31% stake in Showtime/The Movie Channel, and Warner-Amex's 19% interest in the unit and its 60% interest in MTV Networks (Viacom had owned Showtime alone or jointly with other companies – previously in ventures with TelePrompTer Corporation, and later briefly, its successor Group W Cable – from the time it launched in July 1976). The buyout, part of an option given by Warner in its purchase of American Express' interest in MTV, was exercised in part to finance much of the buyout of Showtime/The Movie Channel without borrowing any money. The subsidiary would eventually be renamed Showtime Networks, Inc. in 1988. Ironically, four years after the company sold its interests in Showtime and The Movie Channel, Warner Communications would acquire competitors HBO and Cinemax, when the company merged with Time Inc. in 1989 to form Time Warner.
In May 1986, TMC began incorporating regular on-air hosts to present the channel's afternoon and evening film presentations, and provide backstory on the production of those scheduled to be shown; the channel began using hosts on a regular basis after employing celebrity guest presenters to host special showcase stunts in the fall of 1985 (The Movie Channel would continue to feature guest hosts, such as Ron Howard, Daphne Zuniga, Shirley Jones and Frank Zappa, for programming stunts through much of the late 1980s after it hired full-time presenters). Hosts appearing on the channel between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s included Robert Osborne (then also working as a columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, and who also hosted the channel's Heart of Hollywood behind-the-scenes and interview interstitials), Michelle Russell, Lauren Graham and Joe Bob Briggs (the pseudonym of actor and film critic John Irving Bloom, and host of the popular Saturday evening B-movie showcase Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater).
Format evolution and carriage issues
Former logo used from May 1, 1988 to August 1, 1997; several variants of the "eye and profile" design, using different facial expressions
, were used during this period. The logo was designed by Noel Frankel, with creative directors Alan Goodman
and Fred Seibert
of Fred/Alan, Inc.
The Movie Channel underwent a significant rebranding on May 1, 1988, which in addition to introducing a new "eye and profile" logo designed by Noel Frankel of Fred/Alan, Inc., also saw the introduction of a revamped programming schedule designed to cater to movie fans, maintaining a block scheduling structure for its entire film lineup that was organized by genre or film selection; among the blocks included were the "TMC Classic", a weekday morning and Sunday overnight block of films from the 1930s to the 1960s; "Dramarama", a weekday late-morning block of drama films; "The Laffternoon Movie", a weekday late-afternoon block of comedy films; and two action film-focused blocks (the "Action Attraction", which aired Monday through Fridays in the mid-afternoon, and the weekly prime time showcase "Friday Night Action").
The most distinct block was the "Weekend Multiplex", featuring a set lineup of different movies aired in a scheduling format inspired by movie theaters, comprising a main daytime block on Saturdays and Sundays, seven individual prime time blocks on Friday through Sunday evenings (encompassing three per night between 7:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. Eastern and Pacific Time) and themed editions of the existing "VCR Overnight" block (including the "All Night Drive-In" – a spin-off of "Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater" – on Fridays, film marathons on Saturdays and the Sunday edition of "TMC Classics"). The centerpiece of the "Weekend Multiplex" was the "TMC Top Attraction", a film making its premiere on the channel that was scheduled at different, progressively earlier time slots each evening throughout the weekend. With the exception of "Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater" (which remained on Saturday nights until it was discontinued in February 1996) and the "VCR Overnight" block (which was reduced to Wednesday overnights only in 1997), most of these blocks were discontinued in May 1991.
With the scheduling revamp, TMC greatly increased the number of films it aired on a monthly basis, from about 40 to more than 100 titles per month, with the addition of older films to the slate (which were presented without colorization, in direct contrast to Cinemax, which at the time had aired remastered color versions of some classic films on its schedule). In addition, TMC began incorporating trailers for current and upcoming feature films released initially for theatrical exhibition, which aired during promotional breaks between films until 1997. It also began airing a 15-second daily entertainment news interstitial focusing on the film industry, The Movie Channel News, featuring stories read by a continuity announcer – which varied depending on the segment – over a segment title graphic; the segment would be discontinued in May 1991.
Although extended promotional breaks were shown in a somewhat limited form beforehand, partially as a result of the changes that occurred in 1988, breaks between individual feature presentations on the channel sometimes ran as long as 20 minutes, and even up to 25 minutes in rare cases, depending on the scheduled airtime of the next film (which was denoted on a minute-based countdown ticker graphic that persisted within breaks from May 1988 to August 1997; Showtime would implement a similar countdown graphic for the next scheduled program as part of a branding update in January 1990, which that network would discontinue following its August 1997 rebrand). The Movie Channel temporarily truncated the length of its promotional breaks to five minutes or less in an on-air strategical test during February and March 1993, dispensing of fixed start times at the top and bottom of the hour – at which most of TMC's weekday daytime film telecasts had been scheduled, along with some films aired in other dayparts, since the 1988 format revamp – in favor of airtimes set at top-of-the-hour, bottom-of-the-hour and random five-minute intervals regardless of daypart. After results from the test measured an increase in audience retention for other films with the strategy, the channel instituted the limited break lengths on a regular basis in August of that year; TMC abandoned the break limits in 1997. The break limits imposed by the channel resulted in TMC reducing the number of internally produced interstitial segments that it aired during promotional breaks, with interstitials airing over the next four years consisting mainly of trailers and shorter-length behind-the-scenes segments for upcoming and current films produced by their originating studios.
Although TMC was carried by most subscription television providers, there were some that did not have agreements to carry the channel, even if they already carried Showtime. As an example, now-defunct satellite provider PrimeStar never carried The Movie Channel; weeks after it announced a new carriage agreement with Viacom in January 1999 that would have resulted in the channel joining the provider's lineup, PrimeStar sold its assets to Hughes Communications (then-owners of competitor DirecTV, which would neither carry Viacom's premium and basic-tier services nor Time Warner's premium channels until its 2001 acquisition of United States Satellite Broadcasting). In May 1994, TCI dropped The Movie Channel from more than 30 of the cable provider's service markets. At the time, Viacom was in the midst of an antitrust lawsuit against TCI on accusations that the provider engaged in a "conspiracy to eliminate" Showtime and its sister channels (including TMC) and pressuring Viacom to settle its lawsuit through the negotiation of a carriage contract with the media company that expired in January 1993; Viacom reportedly stated that TCI threatened to hurt both Showtime and TMC unless Viacom agreed to purchase an ownership stake in Encore (now Starz Encore), a network which Viacom claimed to have first conceptually conceived four years earlier during negotiations between the two companies that, if they had been successful, would have resulted in TCI purchasing 50% of Showtime Networks. Representatives for the affected TCI systems said that the decision to remove The Movie Channel from their lineups was made at the local level and was not a directive by company management. Viacom and TCI settled the Showtime Networks distribution dispute in January 1995, preceding the former's $2.3-billion sale of its Viacom Cablevision systems to TCI affiliate company Intermedia Partners.
In August 1997, TMC underwent an extensive rebranding effort that resulted in the channel briefly premiering its own original movies (which were produced through Showtime's original programming division), along with the addition of daily movie marathons set around a specific theme and a companion block known as the Double Vision Weekend, a monthly weekend-long marathon of movies that comprised multiple themed mini-marathons. In addition, TMC also started running movie and celebrity trivia segments during promotional breaks (originally known as TMC Fun Facts and later TMC Reel Stuff), along with incorporating trivia during promos for movies that were scheduled to air on the channel (the channel had previously aired trivia segments between 1988 and 1991). In October of that year, The Movie Channel launched The Movie Channel 2 as its sole multiplex service (it was later renamed The Movie Channel Xtra in March 2001).
In March 2001, The Movie Channel began premiering movies that did not previously receive a theatrical, home video or DVD release, under the umbrella brand "TMC First-Run Movies". It also began airing softcore pornographic films during late night time periods. The channel also debuted a series of two-minute sketches called The Pitch, starring character actor Sean Smith as a movie executive who listens as prospective playwrights pitch him ideas for films (the segment was tongue-in-cheek in nature as the pitches were for well-known existing feature films such as Cliffhanger and The Terminator).
Under CBS Corporation ownership (2005–present)
On June 14, 2005, only six years after the company completed its $2.4-billion acquisition of CBS Inc., Viacom announced that it would split its holdings into two separate media companies, citing concerns by management over stagnation of the principal company's stock price; both companies would be controlled by National Amusements, the Sumner Redstone-owned media and real estate holding company that had owned Viacom since 1976. When the split was completed on December 31, 2005, the original Viacom was restructured as CBS Corporation, which retained ownership of Showtime Networks; CBS' broadcast television and radio assets (including the CBS television network, UPN and the company's broadcast group, which became CBS Television Stations); Paramount Television (now the separate arms CBS Television Studios for network and pay-TV production, and CBS Television Distribution for production of first-run syndicated programs and off-network series distribution); advertising firm Viacom Outdoor (renamed CBS Outdoor); publishing firm Simon & Schuster; and amusement park operator Paramount Parks (which was later sold to Cedar Fair, L.P. on June 30, 2006). The newly incorporated spin-off company, which assumed the Viacom name, attained ownership of Paramount Pictures, the MTV Networks and BET Networks pay-TV divisions, and Famous Music (the latter of which was sold to Sony-ATV Music Publishing in May 2007).
On May 3, 2006, The Movie Channel adopted an overhauled on-air look including a new logo and slogan (Movies For Movie Lovers). Bumpers that introduced films were discontinued entirely (instead starting the film with the customary intermediate bumper providing rating and content information). The channel's website – which only featured a programming schedule with up to one month of data in advance – was also revamped with the addition of special features including an online store, a streaming video player and previews of films set to air on the channel (TMC still features movie trivia interstitials between films on the linear channels and on its video-on-demand service, though it directs viewers to the channel's website for answers to the trivia questions).