Warner Bros. Discovery has been making significant personnel cuts throughout the media company to help reduce its debt.
But there is one division where layoffs can prompt Hollywood types to charge down Warner Boulevard in Burbank with metaphorical pitchforks and torches — the cable channel Turner Classic Movies.
David Zaslav, chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, is learning as much this week as he faces blowback over changes at TCM, which curates and shows uncut, ad-free pre-1980s films that provide viewers a portal into Hollywood history. Its loyal viewers include some of the top directors in the business, Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, among them.
Their alarms sounded earlier this week when companywide layoffs wiped out the entire tier of top management at the channel, including Charles Tabesh, the longtime senior executive in charge of programming.
Veteran general manager Pola Changnon is also leaving, along with the executives overseeing marketing, strategic partnerships and studio production.
The network is being added to the portfolio of Michael Ouweleen, who oversees Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, Discovery Family and Boomerang.
"Michael shares our passion for classic films and believes strongly in TCM's essential role in preserving and spotlighting iconic movies for the next generation of cinephiles," Kathleen Finch, chairman and chief content officer of Warner Bros. Discovery's networks, wrote in a note to staff.
Aware that the cuts would generate anger, Zaslav had a Zoom meeting with Spielberg, Anderson and Scorsese to tell them that the staffing reduction would not detract from the channel's mission of providing a wide range of classic films or alter the viewing experience for its avid fans. A Warner Bros. Discovery representative confirmed the call.
The trio of directors felt reassured enough about the Wednesday meeting to issue a statement expressing their belief that Zaslav understands the channel's standing in the film community.
"We have each spent time talking to David, separately and together, and it's clear that TCM and classic cinema are very important to him," they said.
The directors have long been devoted fans of TCM, which they say helped educate them about their craft. Anderson told the L.A. Times in a 2021 interview that he had the channel on in the kitchen of his home 24 hours a day. "I'm always afraid I'll miss something," he said. "It's a bottomless pit of inspiration."
Fans on social media echoed that sentiment this week. "Please tell me TCM will be alright," "Succession" co-star J. Smith Cameron said in a tweet. "If not, it could be the loss of the last, tiny, perfect remnant of civilization that we have left."
Vincent Alexander, an animator, wrote on Twitter: "TCM is not just the best thing on TV, it's so important for the preservation of classic films. Destroying it to save a few dollars is truly evil. I hope it can be saved before David Zaslav gets away with this."
The directors could yet see a positive outcome from the Zaslav meeting. Warner Bros. Discovery may reconsider the layoff of Tabesh, who has maintained the channel's focus and elegant atmosphere over the years, according to two people familiar with the discussions who were not authorized to discuss internal personnel matters. A representative for the company declined comment on the matter.
Bringing Tabesh back to the fold would not resolve the larger challenges facing TCM and all cable networks that depend on pay-TV subscriptions for their revenue.
Cable and satellite TV subscribers are declining at a steady rate as streaming video becomes the medium of choice for consumers. With every consumer who drops a pay TV package, revenue for TCM goes away. Around 60% of U.S. homes subscribe to a pay-TV service, according to a recent SVB MoffettNathanson study. The figure was greater than 80% as recently as 2016.
Streaming TCM content is available as part of Warner Bros. Discovery's Max platform (formerly HBO Max), but it is hardly representative of the breadth of the cable network's offerings. In addition to a wide selection of films that date back to the silent era, TCM viewers count on the insights provided by its expert hosts, history-packed interstitial segments and interviews with legendary figures in the film industry.
As cable and satellite revenue declines, Warner Bros. Discovery will have to consider how its brand-name cable channels such as TCM survive. TCM could live on either as part of Max or as its own direct-to-consumer offering that fans could buy without a pay TV subscription.
One factor in TCM's favor is that Zaslav likely does not want to anger Hollywood elites more than he already has.
Last month, Warner Bros. Discovery infuriated Hollywood talent by lumping directors, writers and producers into a single generic category labeled "creators" within the credits of shows and movies on Max. The company has apologized, calling the move a mistake that will be corrected.
Zaslav's substantial compensation package has been used as a cudgel by Hollywood scribes during the Writers Guild of America strike.
TCM fans have been inflamed before by previous owners. AT&T in 2018 axed TCM's streaming product FilmStruck as one of its first orders of business after it acquired Warner Bros. parent company Time Warner. Criterion filled the void by launching its own service, the Criterion Channel.