In 1986, eight years before the launch of Turner Classic Movies, Ted Turner acquired the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio for $1.5 billion. Concerns over Turner Entertainment's corporate debt load resulted in Turner selling the studio that October back to Kirk Kerkorian, from whom Turner had purchased the studio less than a year before. As part of the deal, Turner Entertainment retained ownership of MGM's library of films released up to May 9, 1986. Turner Broadcasting System was split into two companies; Turner Broadcasting System and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and reincorporated as MGM/UA Communications Co.
The film library of Turner Entertainment would serve as the base form of programming for TCM upon the network's launch. Before the creation of Turner Classic Movies, films from Turner's library of movies aired on the Turner Broadcasting System's advertiser-supported cable network TNT – along with colorized versions of black-and-white classics such as The Maltese Falcon. After the library was acquired, MGM/UA signed a deal with Turner to continue distributing the pre-May 1986 MGM and to begin distributing the pre-1950 Warner Bros. film libraries for video release (the rest of the library went to Turner Home Entertainment).
Turner Classic Movies debuted on April 14, 1994, at 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time, with Ted Turner launching the channel at a ceremony in New York City's Times Square district. The date and time were chosen for their historical significance as "the exact centennial anniversary of the first public movie showing in New York City." The first movie broadcast on TCM was the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, the same film that served as the debut broadcast of its sister channel TNT six years earlier in October 1988.
At the time of its launch, TCM was available to approximately one million cable television subscribers. The network originally served as a competitor to AMC – which at the time was known as "American Movie Classics" and maintained a virtually identical format to TCM, as both networks largely focused on films released prior to 1970 and aired them in an uncut, uncolorized, and commercial-free format. AMC had broadened its film content to feature colorized and more recent films by 2002. In the early 90's AMC abandoned its commercial-free format, leaving TCM as the only movie-oriented cable channel to devote its programming entirely to classic films without commercial interruption.
In 1996, Turner Broadcasting System merged with Time Warner, which besides placing Turner Classic Movies and Warner Bros. Entertainment under the same corporate umbrella, also gave TCM access to Warner Bros.' library of films released after 1949 (which itself includes other acquired entities such as the Lorimar, Saul Zaentz and National General Pictures libraries); incidentally, TCM had already been running select Warner Bros. film titles through a licensing agreement with the studio that was signed prior to the launch of the channel. In March 1999, MGM paid Warner Bros. and gave up the home video rights to the MGM/UA films owned by Turner to Warner Home Video.
In 2000, TCM started the annual Young Composers Film Competition, inviting aspiring composers to participate in a judged competition that offers the winner of each year's competition the opportunity to score a restored, feature-length silent film as a grand prize, mentored by a well-known composer, with the new work subsequently premiering on the network. As of 2006, films that have been rescored include the 1921 Rudolph Valentino film Camille, two Lon Chaney films: 1921's The Ace of Hearts and 1928's Laugh, Clown, Laugh, and Greta Garbo's 1926 film The Temptress.
In 2008, TCM won a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting. In April 2010, Turner Classic Movies held the first TCM Classic Film Festival, an event – now held annually – at the Grauman's Chinese Theater and the Grauman's Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Hosted by Robert Osborne, the four-day long annual festival celebrates Hollywood and its movies, and features celebrity appearances, special events, and screenings of around 50 classic movies including several newly restored by The Film Foundation, an organization devoted to preserving Hollywood's classic film legacy.
Turner Classic Movies essentially operates as a commercial-free service, with the only advertisements on the network being shown between features – which advertise TCM products, network promotions for upcoming special programs and the original trailers for films that are scheduled to be broadcast on TCM (particularly those that will air during the primetime hours), and featurettes about classic film actors and actresses. In addition to this, extended breaks between features are filled with theatrically released movie trailers and classic short subjects – from series such as The Passing Parade, Crime Does Not Pay, Pete Smith Specialties, and Robert Benchley – under the banner name TCM Extras (formerly One Reel Wonders). In 2007, some of the short films featured on TCM were made available for streaming on TCM's website. Partly to allow these interstitials, Turner Classic Movies schedules its feature films either at the top of the hour or at :15, :30 or :45 minutes past the hour, instead of in timeslots of varying five-minute increments.
TCM's film content has remained mostly uncut and uncolorized (with films natively filmed or post-produced in the format being those only ones presented in color), depending upon the original content of movies, particularly movies released after the 1968 implementation of the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings system and the concurrent disestablishment of the Motion Picture Production Code. Because of this, TCM is formatted similarly to a premium channel with certain films – particularly those made from the 1960s onward – sometimes featuring nudity, sexual content, violence and/or strong profanity; the network also features rating bumpers prior to the start of a program (most programs on TCM, especially films, are rated for content using the TV Parental Guidelines, in lieu of the MPAA's rating system).
The network's programming season runs from February until the following March of each year when a retrospective of Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated movies is shown, called 31 Days of Oscar. As a result of its devoted format to classic feature films, viewers who are interested in tracing the career development of actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck or Greta Garbo or actors like Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart have the unique opportunity to see most of the films that were made during their careers, from beginning to end. Turner Classic Movies presents many of its features in their original aspect ratio (widescreen or full screen) whenever possible – widescreen films broadcast on TCM are letterboxed on the network's standard definition feed. TCM also regularly presents widescreen presentations of films not available in the format on any home video release.
Occasionally, TCM shows restored versions of films, particularly old silent films with newly commissioned musical soundtracks. Turner Classic Movies is also a major backer of the Descriptive Video Service (created by Boston PBS member station WGBH-TV), with many of the films aired on the network offering visual description for the blind and visually impaired, which is accessible through the second audio program option through most television sets, or a cable or satellite receiver.
During the prime time hours, an ident for the "Watch TCM" app is shown after every movie.
TCM's library of films spans several decades of cinema and includes thousands of film titles. Besides its deals to broadcast film releases from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros. Entertainment, Turner Classic Movies also maintains movie licensing rights agreements with Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox as FX Movie Channel, Walt Disney Studios (primarily film content from Walt Disney Pictures), as well as most of the Selznick International Pictures library, Sony Pictures Entertainment (primarily film content from Columbia Pictures), StudioCanal, and Janus Films.
Most Paramount sound releases made prior to 1950 are owned by EMKA, Ltd./NBCUniversal Television Distribution, while Paramount (currently owned by Viacom) holds on to most of its post-1949 releases, which are distributed for television by Trifecta Entertainment & Media. Columbia's film output is owned by Sony (through Sony Pictures Television); distribution of 20th Century Fox's film library is handled for television by its 21st Century Fox subsidiary 20th Television, and the Walt Disney Studios (owned by The Walt Disney Company) has its library film output handled for television by Disney-ABC Domestic Television. Classic films released by 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Universal Studios, and Columbia Pictures are licensed individually for broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.
Also TCM has aired movies from the 1900s, 1910s and the 1920s. Although most movies shown on TCM are releases from the 1930s to the 1960s, some are more contemporary – Turner Classic Movies sometimes airs films from the 1970s and occasionally broadcasts movies released during the 1980s, 1990s and the early 2000s.
Most feature movies shown during the prime time and early overnight hours (8:00 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Eastern Time) were presented by the late film historian Robert Osborne (who had been with the network since its 1994 launch until 2016, except for a five-month medical leave from July to December 2011, when guest hosts presented each night's films) on Sunday through Wednesday evenings – with Osborne only presenting primetime films on weekends – and Ben Mankiewicz presenting only late evening films on Thursdays, and the "Silent Sunday Nights" and "TCM Imports" blocks on Sundays.
TCM regularly airs a "Star of the Month" throughout the year on Wednesdays starting at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, in which most, if not all, feature films from a classic film star are shown during that night's schedule. February and August are the only months to not have a "Star of the Month". The network also marks the occurrence of a film actor's birthday (either antemortem or posthumously) or recent death with day- or evening-long festivals showcasting several of that artist's best, earliest or least-known pictures; by effect, marathons scheduled in honor of an actor's passing (which are scheduled within a month after their death) pre-empt films originally scheduled to air on that date. TCM also features a monthly program block called the "TCM Guest Programmer", in which Osborne is joined by celebrity guests responsible for choosing that evening's films (examples of such programmers during 2012 include Jules Feiffer, Anthony Bourdain, Debra Winger, Ellen Barkin, Spike Lee, Regis Philbin and Jim Lehrer); an offshoot of this block featuring Turner Classic Movies employees aired during February 2011.
Turner Classic Movies also airs regularly scheduled weekly film blocks, which are periodically preempted for special themed month-long or seasonal scheduling events, such as the "31 Days of Oscar" film series in the month preceding the Academy Awards and the month-long "Summer Under the Stars" in August; all featured programming has their own distinctive feature presentation bumper for the particular scheduled presentation. The Essentials, with various hosts from 2001 through 2015, was a weekly film showcase airing on Saturday evenings (with a replay on the following Sunday at 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time), which spotlighted a different movie and contained a special introduction and post-movie discussion.
The channel also broadcasts two movie blocks during the late evening hours each Sunday: "Silent Sunday Nights", which features silent films from the United States and abroad, usually in the latest restored version and often with new musical scores; and "TCM Imports" (which previously ran on Saturdays until the early 2000s), a weekly presentation of films originally released in foreign countries. TCM Underground – which debuted in October 2006 – is a Friday late night block which focuses on cult films, the block was originally hosted by rocker/filmmaker Rob Zombie until December 2006 (though as of 2014, it is the only regular film presentation block on the channel that does not have a host).
Each August, Turner Classic Movies suspends its regular schedule for a special month of film marathons called "Summer Under the Stars", which features entire daily schedules devoted to the work of a particular actor, with movies and specials that pertain to the star of the day. In the summer of 2007, the channel debuted "Funday Night at the Movies", a block hosted by actor Tom Kenny (best known as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants). This summer block featured classic feature films (such as The Wizard of Oz, Sounder, Bringing Up Baby, Singin' in the Rain, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) aimed at introducing these movies to new generations of children, and their families.
"Funday Night at the Movies" was replaced in 2008 by "Essentials Jr.", a youth-oriented version of its weekly series, The Essentials (originally hosted by actors Abigail Breslin, and Chris O'Donnell, then by John Lithgow from 2009 to 2011, and then by Bill Hader, starting with the 2011 season), which included such family-themed films as National Velvet, Captains Courageous, and Yours, Mine and Ours, as well as more eclectic selections, such as Sherlock, Jr., The Music Box, Harvey, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
In 2014, the channel debuted "Treasures from the Disney Vault", hosted by Leonard Maltin. This television show showcases a compilation of vintage Disney feature films, cartoons, documentaries, episodes of the Walt Disney anthology television series, and episodes of The Mickey Mouse Club.
In addition to films, Turner Classic Movies also airs original content, mostly documentaries about classic movie personalities, the world of filmmaking and particularly notable films. An occasional month-long series, Race and Hollywood, showcases films by and about people of non-white races, featuring discussions of how these pictures influenced white people's image of said races, as well as how people of those races viewed themselves. Previous installments have included "Asian Images on Film" in 2008, "Native American Images on Film" in 2010, "Black Images on Film" in 2006 "Latino Images on Film" in 2009 and "Arab Images on Film" in 2011. The network aired the film series Screened Out (which explored the history and depiction of homosexuality in film) in 2007 and Religion on Film (focusing on the role of religion in cinematic works) in 2005. In 2011, TCM debuted a new series entitled AFI's Master Class: The Art of Collaboration.
In December 1994, TCM debuted "TCM Remembers", a tribute to recently deceased notable film personalities (including actors, producers, composers, directors, writers and cinematographers) that occasionally airs during promotional breaks between films. The segments appear in two forms: individual tributes and a longer end-of-year compilation. Following the recent death of an especially famous classic film personality (usually an actor, producer, filmmaker or director), the segment will feature a montage of select shots of the deceased's work.
Every December, a longer, more inclusive "TCM Remembers" interstitial is produced that honors all of the noted film personalities who died during the past year, interspersed with scenes from settings such as an abandoned drive-in (2012) or a theatre which is closing down and is being dismantled (2013). Since 2001, the soundtracks for these clipreels have been introspective melodies by indie artists such as Badly Drawn Boy (2007) or Steve Earle (2009).
Turner Classic Movies operates a high definition simulcast feed, with programs broadcast in HD presented in an upconverted 1080i resolution format; the HD feed of the network was launched in June 2009. Initial programming was not available in native high definition and was instead upconverted from standard definition, but benefited from the greater bandwidth allocated to the channel. By November 2014, film masters meant for high definition presentation, along with Osborne and Mankiewicz-hosted continuity had transitioned to the format (though films meant to be presented in the Academy ratio or other anamorphic formats lower than 16:9 are presented as intended by the director or studio with the appropriate black boxing around the frame).
The TCM Vault Collection consists of several different DVD collections of rare classic films that have been licensed, remastered and released by Turner Classic Movies (through corporate sister Warner Home Video). These boxed set releases are of films by notable actors, directors or studios that were previously unreleased on DVD or VHS. The sets often include bonus discs including documentaries and shorts from the TCM library. The initial batch of DVDs are printed in limited quantities and subsequent batches are made-on-demand (MOD).Universal Collection – Featuring films licensed by TCM from the Universal Studios vault.
The Lost RKO Collection – Featuring RKO films from the 1930s.
TCM Archives – A series of DVD boxsets released by Warner Home Video featuring Pre-Code and Silent Films which includes the Forbidden Hollywood series.
TCM Spotlight – A series of DVD boxsets released by Warner Home Video featuring Charlie Chan and stars such as Esther Williams, Errol Flynn, Jean Arthur, Deanna Durbin, and Doris Day.
In October 2015, TCM announced the launch of the TCM Wineclub, in which they teamed up with Laithwaite to provide a line of mail-order wines from famous vineyards such as famed writer-director-producer Francis Ford Coppola's winery. Wines are available in 3 month subscriptions, and can be selected as reds, whites, or a mixture of both. From the wines chosen, TCM also includes recommended movies to watch with each, such as a "True Grit" wine, to be paired with the John Wayne film of the same name.
Turner Classic Movies is available in many other countries around the world. In Canada, TCM began to be carried on Shaw Cable and satellite provider Shaw Direct in 2005. Rogers Cable started offering TCM in December 2006 as a free preview for subscribers of its digital cable tier, and was added to its analogue tier in February 2007. While the schedule for the Canadian feed is generally the same as that of the U.S. network, some films are replaced for broadcast in Canada due to rights issues and other reasons. Other versions of TCM are available in Australia, France, Middle East, Africa, Spain, Asia, Latin America, Nordic countries, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Malta. The UK version operates two channels, including a spinoff called TCM 2.