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Five Questions for Tom Karsch

Turner Classic Movies executive vice president and general manager Tom Karsch is celebrating a decade at the helm of the only commercial-free, classic-movie cable network by looking toward the future and new platforms such as video on demand. MCN programming editor R. Thomas Umstead spoke with Karsch about the 72-million-subscriber network's future.

MCN: Will TCM's definition of classic movies change to incorporate more contemporary films of the 1980s and 1990s?

Tom Karsch: The bread and butter of the network is movies from the 1930s to the 1970s. But we will always continue to sprinkle in some of the newer films that we feel are in that future classic mode — like a Philadelphia, that was done in [1993] but was a big Oscar winner that tends to hold up over time. We'll also use movies like an Austin Powers to anchor a night of spy spoofs in an effort to drive more viewers of all ages.

MCN: How important has TCM been to the cable industry and to Hollywood because of its ability to preserve and showcase vintage films?

TK: From the cable industry's perspective, the proof of our viability is the fact that most of our carriage is on expanded basic, which tells me that our partners in the cable industry feel that there's a value to offering TCM. I've seen [operators] add TCM for competition reasons when they're taking a rate increase — they obviously feel it's a valuable network to offer when they have something [less attractive] that they're doing something at the same time.

I think [Hollywood] looks at us as preserving its history, especially at a time when other networks that were doing the same thing at one point no longer are. They also see that we're not afraid to run silent and foreign films — they realize that it's important to us and that it's product that needs to be seen.

MCN: Will we ever see commercials on TCM?

TK: That's not the plan. There's never been any push on me to explore that direction. I think [Turner Broadcasting System Inc.] realizes that the unique selling point for this network is the fact that it's commercial free. That's where the real value is and that's the value we offer to our cable and satellite partners. I don't think anyone is quick to run for the money and try to upset a core network.

MCN: Do Bogart, Cagney and Davis movies have any appeal in an on-demand movie environment?

TK: I think so. I don't have exact numbers, but there are some numbers starting to come out of Comcast Cable that says the usage of TCM On Demand has been pretty good. I don't think we'll ever do [Cartoon Network's] Adult Swim numbers, but some of the numbers that we've heard are great.

One of the major barriers for TCM in terms of getting people to watch the network is the time commitment that's needed. VOD and TiVo are actually in our case great assets because it allows people to interact with our product on their own time. They'll always get the branding with [on-air host] Robert Osbourne at the beginning of the movie so they'll know it not just some movie offered but rather a TCM movie.

MCN: What does the next decade hold for TCM and yourself?

TK: That's a great question. I think there's still so much for us to do in terms of the way this product is going to be accessed, whether it's through our long-form programming, the movies themselves, or the short-form programming. We have to make sure that we have product that fits really well into these new platforms and new distribution mechanisms.

You say, 'Well, how can you watch a movie over your cell phone?' But we do have compelling short-form content that would be great for cell phones that can then help promote the linear network. I think technology and how we deal with that is really going to be a focus in the next couple of years.