The Great TCM Experiment

A portion of the bounty from the Great TCM Experiment of 2014.

From mid-August to early November, I conducted the “Great TCM Experiment,” in which I recorded everything on TCM.

Yes, everything as in everything.

Let me explain.

In August, a friend mentioned that several early Carole Lombard movies were coming up on TCM. I looked over the titles and found that I had about half of them but there were a few missing from my collection, which consists mostly of films that have aired on TCM since 2011.

Earlier this year, I pulled the plug on all but basic cable because it was expensive and because TCM’s programming seemed repetitive, despite its large library. (Executive summary:  Closer analysis shows that TCM’s programming is indeed repetitive).

Part of my problem was that my collection had gotten out of hand and I was relying on my memory rather than making a database of all my DVDs.  The last straw was discovering that I burned a copy of “Torchy Runs for Mayor” and found that I already had it. And I mean, really, who needs two copies of “Torchy Runs for Mayor?”

And so the Great TCM Experiment was born. I spent a weekend of drudgery compiling a database of my DVDs. (How many? Let’s just say a lot). I upped my cable package to include TCM. And, as luck would have it, Fry’s electronics was having a sale on blank DVDs: A stack of 100 blanks for $12.99. So I stocked up.

My goal was simple: Record everything on TCM for three months, or until there was one day when I already had every movie in the day’s lineup, whichever came first. I came very close during the tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, and had almost everything but “Marnie” and “Shadow of a Doubt.”

The experiment was fun for me, but not so much for my DVR. After the first few weeks, I had to make room on the DVR by clearing off anything I had saved before the beginning of the experiment (Goodbye, “Dexter,” “Modern Family” and “The Office.”) I tried to keep the DVR with at least 12% free space, but it occasionally got as low as 4% free space. In case you don’t know, the Motorola VIP 2250 DVR is programmed as first-in, first-out so that at anything less than 10% free space, it will threaten to purge the oldest recordings. I got as low as 4% free space without anything being purged, but I don’t recommend it because the recordings may be corrupted.

“He’s dead, Jim.”



In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t get absolutely everything on TCM, but I came close. At one point, my DVR died and had to be replaced, so I lost a bit of time. There were two days when I failed to program anything and I decided to use that time to get caught up on burning DVDs rather than even taking a look at what I might be missing.

And there were occasional recording errors. One movie began with one film and jumped to the middle of another. Several recordings were somehow corrupted and disintegrated into large blocks of pixels, so I erased them because they were unwatchable (that would be “One Million B.C.”).   Sometimes, to make room, I erased movies that were available commercially, such as “I Never Sang for My Father.”

But even so, I got hundreds and hundreds of movies. Many of them films that I would have ordinarily bypassed.

Pre-codes. Silents. Westerns. Musicals. Foreign films. Dopey early 1960s romantic comedies. Blaxploitation flicks. Jerry Lewis. And, during October, tons of horror films.

Speaking of horror, there were times when I thought I would never finish recording all those Melvyn Douglas movies (even after erasing “I Never Sang for My Father”). And the introductions with Drew Barrymore or Ben Mankiewicz were ruthlessly excised. I liked Alex Trebek introducing films on Africa – he gave well-rehearsed mini-lectures — and enjoyed seeing “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film,” but was disappointed in the superficial introductions by Eric Goldman.

How repetitive is TCM? After my semi-scientific study, I would say that the channel averages a 50%-50% or 60%-40% mix of repeats vs. “new” films, rising to 80% or 90% repeats when TCM honors a famous individual such as Alfred Hitchcock and dropping to about 30% repeats when it programs pre-code films.

And yes, you can depend on seeing the usual suspects at least once or twice a year: “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Robin Hood,” “The Red Shoes,” etc., etc. But lesser-known films such as “Cass Timberlane,” “Wild Boys of the Road” and “Il Sorpasso” showed up in the rotation with surprising frequency.

And if you pay attention you will also notice mini-festivals that aren’t necessarily advertised: One day it might be Clint Walker, another day it could be Jack Webb.

Fans of the Daily Mirror’s mystery movie will have to wait for these films because I have a one-year embargo on anything that was recorded from TCM. But let’s just say I’m good  for 2015.

ps. If anybody is looking for a copy of “Torchy Runs for Mayor,” I have an extra.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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20 Responses to The Great TCM Experiment

  1. juliemerholz says:

    Oh Boy. What a lot of work for you. I hope it was mostly fun.


  2. your scrupulous research proved what i too
    always suspected regarding TCM’s playlist. bravo!


  3. Gary Martin says:

    Just one copy of Torchy? Hardly qualifies you as a serious buff!


    • lmharnisch says:

      I’m also missing “Fly Away Baby.”


      • Lee Ann, Megan and Thom says:

        Mr. Harnisch, “Fly Away Baby” is one of the better Torchy movies. It’s based on Dorothy Kilgallen’s around the world race (yes, the Dorothy Kilgallen of “What’s My Line”), with a murder mystery thrown in. And no movie is a waste of time that has the wonderful Raymond Hatton in it. Also, we enjoy the incidental music in it–Torchy has her own theme rather like a Wagner leitmotif.


      • lmharnisch says:

        And then there’s Sgt. Gahagan’s poems. 🙂


  4. Mary Mallory says:

    They are Turner Classic Movies, so of course most of their films are repeats. Fox, Paramount, Columbia, and Universal have not allowed them to show too many of their films, or there would be lots of more “new” films available. Universal hasn’t released most of what they have on Paramount (1928-1949) much less their own stuff.


  5. Sam Flowers says:

    I kind of liked the Torchy series but the William Powell movies are my favorites.


  6. mandymarie20 says:

    I definitely agree that there are tons of repeats. The last few years have been especially tedious. Some good ones, but lots of repeats and too many recent films. It’s especially noticeable if you DVR a particular actor (I DVR Joan Crawford and Warren WIlliam). If anyone is curious, Mildred Pierce plays at least once a month. It’s one of my favorite films so I don’t mind, but when you have so many films available, mix it up! Show more early films – and not just at 2 in the morning.


    • lmharnisch says:

      Since the 1970s, when I bought my first VCR, I have been big on deciding when to watch a movie, rather than letting some programer make the decision for me. I accumulated a lot of classics “edited for TV” in the bad old days before video stores even existed. With the switch to DVD, I record many things to watch at a more convenient time. My DVR fills up fast, hence the burning to DVD. With the price of hard drives falling, maybe DVRs will come with 1 terrabyte drives rather than 500 gigabytes, which hold a maximum of about 90+ HD movies.


  7. mandymarie20 says:

    As to the DVR, it will delete programs even if there IS space. Diligently maintaining it seems to be the only solution.


  8. Benito says:

    Best candidates for burning dvds are movies TCM rarely shows, e.g. CHINA CLIPPER, SLAVE SHIP, and vintage Japanese horror films like JIGOKU. Fox refuses to show many of its movies on cable, or else edits and censors them for FX. The dvds are available online but often cost $20 apiece. So, when will someone finally show HELLZAPOPPIN on cable? The version on youtube has terrible resolution.


  9. Don Danard says:

    Hey! What’s wrong with “One Million B.C.”? That’s a classic. Gee whiz.


  10. Eve says:

    May I toss in a complaint about how there are no TV page listings anymore? The NY Times discontinued theirs about ten years ago, so I have to subscribe to my local paper for the Sunday weekly TV listings insert–which covers maybe half of the cable channels. TV Guide is a useless piece of crap.

    “Why don’t you look them up online?” Because I am an old lady, and I want a weekly guide so I can circle things I’d like to see that week, LIKE WE USED TO HAVE when there were fewer channels. My TV viewing is pretty much hit-or-miss; I’ll flip through the channels, and there will be something interesting on some new network that didn’t even exist last week.

    I hate this stupid century.


  11. Lee Ann, Megan and Thom says:

    Whadda day, whadda day!


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