Discover ThisTV, even if by accident
It was a channel that remained in the ether and away from the ethos until many picked up a digital converter box. On Nov. 1, 2008, Time Warner Cable bumped a channel to make room for ThisTV (201 on cable and 58-3 on digital air in Milwaukee). Now audiences are discovering this quirky pre-programmed channel offered by Chicago-based Weigel Broadcasting and MGM to bolster sibling station WDJT CBS-58 and predecessor MeTV (58-2).
In an age where most Americans have at least seen a cable channel (walking through an airport or bar) or, more likely, have several televisions programmed into a system in their home – the memory of what it was like to get four or five VHF channels and a handful of fuzzy UHF ones on a second dial is fading like a lost signal. But digital antenna programming is about to birth a new renaissance.
At first, viewing habits were established around a channel hierarchy which was later weakened by the increasingly commonplace remote control. Cable and satellite programming went from being a luxury of the privileged to a necessity for all classes to stay informed and entertained. Now, in a strange back-sidestep, the strength of independent national broadcasting companies and alliances with multiple local stations have likely created a new form with a widespread marketing campaign and government subsidies proliferating the digital converter box before the new conversion deadline.
Watching ThisTV, it certainly feels like a secret. While the rest of the world copes with a proliferating density of cable channels (which then split into additional HD versions and sub-categories i.e. Discovery for Kids, Investigate Discovery, Animal Planet, Discovery Health), the effort to get some piece of the pie with non-cable (ThisTV doesn’t appear to be on DirecTV locally) audiences emerges in a niche programming way. While MeTV plays old TV shows 24/7 similar to TV Land or WMLW, ThisTV mostly plays movies “from the classic age” – as one incessant interstitial ad likes to tout.
Read: not classic movies, but from that era. After the overnight and early six hours are done showing old Patty Duke and Mister Ed episodes, the rest of the day is programmed into blocks showing movies from MGM’s lesser-known library. While a few these films’ production dates stray into the new millennium, most are from the 1950s to 1980s – excluding a range of films which were sold and still under control of other companies. Theme days are built around a performer, like the recent Vincent Price set (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, From a Whisper to a Scream) or famous directors (Stanley Kubrick’s Killers Kiss, Brian DePalma’s Blow Out). All the films on ThisTV may be considered B-Movies or second-run features; nothing on the roster ever reaches into AFI’s or imdb.com’s “Top 100” anything.
However, there’s a peculiar grace and quietly assuming nature to these films that make them low culture reborn as fresh entertainment. When I worked in video stores, there were always rows of VHS boxes bleached on one side from front window sun and coated with dust. They took up space on the shelves in a time before the voluminous output of theatrical features, direct-to-DVD sleepers and cable original movies. Back then, these stories were not considered mere commodities for American consumption. Picking a movie rental evoked more of the experience visiting a public library. A randomly picked tome there could still provide as much nourishment as lauded classic.
It is engrossing to leave ThisTV on while working on a project in the same room. It’s the kind of programming one can imagine coming from the only available channel at a nursing home or institution. The familiar voice of Milwaukee Brewers PA announcer and commercial spokesman Robb Edwards is the voice for the channel. Most of what would be commercials are replaced with Public Service announcements mandated for most stations that run them at 3 a.m.
The movies themselves are often a hot mess. Most of the revered classics are held for cable’s MGM HD (basically the same model, right down to the typeface on the website), so the remainders are forced to find new life as a sort of cross-section of middlebrow filmmaking. On Wednesday, the 1972 cop film Fuzz was broadcast. It starred Burt Reynolds and a host of now familiar character actors (well, except for maybe Yul Brenner and Raquel Welch) who inhabited a storytelling world and environment that feels exactly like many modern television’s critically acclaimed police procedurals. Many of the films on ThisTV feel like they could be network shows today. What is now high art on television was once standard fare at the movies.
If you can actually sit down and absorb the programming on this unusual channel, the swath of emotion may stem from sentimentality for a more comforting time. A channel like Turner Classic Movies present material as austere and holding a place in the canon of cinema. A channel like ThisTV spools up the projector and lets the audience make up their own mind.