The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Movies on Basic Cable: Hell on Earth?

Written by: Allan Heifetz, Special to CC2K

Allan Heifetz laments the state and the fate of basic-cable movies.

“To watch a movie on basic cable is to defy all manner of logic and decency.”
– Thomas Jefferson

As my wife lay sick in bed the other day watching the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with Kiera Knightley on the E! channel, it hit me that since we already owned the movie on DVD I could just get it from the shelf, pop the disc in for her and she could watch the movie properly. “Properly” in this sense means with no ads, no scenes ripped out for time and presented in the right aspect ratio. Of course, sick wifey told me not to bother since she was barely awake anyhow. Besides, the whole ordeal of walking over to the DVD shelf, getting the movie, putting it in the machine; it all smacks of commitment. By watching a movie on basic cable you are saying to the world “I can change the channel at any time, I’m free to roam, I’m not married to this.”

When I’m channel flipping and happen to catch myself watching a basic cable hatchet-job presentation of a film that already own, I feel dirty and ashamed. It’s like I’ve taken my Hellboy II DVD’s ugly and slow sister out for a romantic evening while the real Hellboy II looks on from atop her dusty shelf. She cries, for I have cheated on her ample 2-discs.

Ever since the dawn of TV, the obvious choice for filling endless hours of programming time has been movies. Upon buying a movie a network is then free to remove chunks of it, get rid of dialogue with dubbing, bleeping or silence, crop the picture and so on to fit their needs. The film is thus used like caulking goo to sloppily fill in those gaping holes between ad breaks.

In days gone by the picture and sound quality of our televisions was so poor and the screens were so tiny that one felt lucky to be watching a movie no matter the quality. But now, even in this age of ever-increasing access to pristine quality picture and sound and with so much uncut material at your fingertips through services like Tivo, On Demand and Netflix, most people still adopt the “whatever’s on” stance and watch what is put before them. Freedom from choice can be liberating. I bet that even most self-described “movie buffs” would happily sit through an ad injected, heavily cut, cropped, panned, scanned, blurred and dubbed movie that’s jacked up even more with banner ads and network logos fighting for screen space. These are the kind of movie fans that don’t get angry when they see a cropped two shot that successfully cuts both actors out of frame. These people manage to block out all the troublesome questions that arise while watching a movie on broadcast TV or basic cable, such as WHY was that word bleeped out? WHY was that scene deleted? This line of questioning opens up a Pandora’s box of serious issues; once you go down that road there is nothing waiting for you at the end but confusion and anger. Don’t let’s start.

After her recovery, the wife let me know that E! had actually torn out final scene of Pride and Prejudice. Oh, just the final scene? The scene in which we finally get to see newlyweds Elisabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy make out? The scene you’ve been waiting to see all through the fucking movie? Sure, go ahead and toss it. It’s just not necessary. We saw that they got married, right? Isn’t that enough? I imagine the cut had to be made to make room for just one more Jerseylicious promo. Let’s use logic here; if you start out with Pride and Prejudice and whittle the shit out of it, what you are left with is something other/less than Pride and Prejudice. A Pride and Prej, perhaps.

I, for one, am taking the high road and pledging never to watch a crop chop dubby again (Note from author: From here on out I will be referring to edited-for-TV films as “crop chop dubbys.”), nor will I ever watch an edited-for-TV episode of a freaking TV show like The Sopranos (thanks, A&E).

The American Movie Classics channel is pretty damned lucky when you think about it. A never ending wave of respect and admiration has been heaped upon the network for their daring original programming (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead). The greatness of these shows effectively masks the fact that AMC is a true basic cable bottom feeder. AMC does nothing but show heavily cut movies of varying quality complete with commercials. AMC wants to be a haven for movie lovers but wouldn’t real movie lovers rather watch a movie than watch an AMC facsimile of one?

Would a true fan of Goodfellas put up with the crop choppy version of it? Would a true action lover watch Predator with the violence ripped out and the macho cussin’ completely neutered? Would a true Dirty Harry fan watch “Dirty Harry Week” on AMC?

You have no idea how long I waited to see the bad guy in Sudden Impact get impaled on the horn of that merry-go-round unicorn. It never happened. I cried myself to sleep. AMC might offer a stupid “Top 5 Reasons Why Dirty Harry is Totally Awesome” bit at the end of a commercial break but it doesn’t make up for the fact that they are peddling a bogus product.

The G4 network has been struggling for almost a decade now to form some sort of cohesive identity in which to attract its coveted demo of males aged 18 – 34. Starting off as a channel dedicated to all things video games, they soon realized that the gaming community is too busy playing video games to actually watch TV about playing video games. Nowadays their snazzy looking bumpers and station IDs try desperately to present the channel as a haven for hip young males obsessed with geek culture and gadgets. Alas, the truth is G4 would air Golden Girls or Mama’s Family reruns in a heartbeat if they knew it would turn a profit. If G4 is so god damned cutting edge and cool then why is all their programming so heavily self-censored? This is a channel that covers the porn industry regularly and features porn-related programming yet god forbid someone say “shit” or “ass” or show anything resembling nudity. Do you get the feeling that there are two opposing forces at work here?

When G4 puts a movie on they call the presentation “Movies That Don’t Suck.” The “Movies That Don’t Suck” opening title sequence is pretty awesome; it perfectly mimics the old “Movie of the Week” title sequences from the 70’s and 80’s. The music is wonderfully tinny and there’s even a classic “IN COLOR” logo at the bottom. Then the movie starts and it’s all downhill from there. Even if the movie did indeed not suck in the slightest in its original form, you can depend on G4 to make your viewing experience suck as hard as a bag o’ dicks. It seems they can only afford horrible quality prints of films that have been crop chop dubby’d to within an inch of their lives. Add in an ad break every six minutes and more ugly screen text than a Japanese game show (There’s the G4 network logo, the Movies That Don’t Suck logo and worst of all, the NAME OF THE MOVIE YOU ARE WATCHING in the left hand corner, just in case you’re too tired to press the info button on your remote) and you have a colossal waste of time that is an insult to us, the time wasting TV watchers.

You wouldn’t think there would be a network out there with more serious identity issues than G4 but you really must hand the basic cable desperation award to the Reelz Channel. Even after the world has rejected them, they soldier on, staying afloat any way they can. You see, the Reelz Channel was supposed to be “TV about Movies.” While other networks like E! suck on the film industry’s teat for only, say, 70% of their programming, Reelz stepped up as the network willing to get on their knees and go the full 110% with mind-numbing junkets, behind-the-scenes puffery and endless run-off from the Hollywood hype spigot. A handful of entertainment news-style shows were produced, all complete with shitty virtual backgrounds to save money on couches. Reelz even managed to snag super-critic Leonard Maltin, former At The Movies star Richard Roeper and L.A.’s least favorite entertainment reporter, Sam Rubin, to perform host duties.

Alas, Reelz overestimated people’s appetite for promotional materials. In the years since the launch of Reelz, I doubt any of these shows have even showed up on a ratings list. So it’s on to Plan B: a full frontal, financially mandatory lobotomy. Now this channel dedicated to movies offers one hour blocks of Becker, Cheers, News Radio, Ally McBeal and Brothers and Sisters (Wow– two Calista Flockhart shows? Shouldn’t Reelz change their name to Flockhartz? Or Ally McReelz?).

When it comes time to fill up a two to three hour hole in their schedule, Reelz returns to the cinema for inspiration. By “cinema” I of course mean crop chop dubby’s of truly awful movies that only succeed in mocking further the channel’s original mission statement. Remember the Razzie Award winner for Worst Picture of 1993, Shining Through? Reelz Gotz it! Love Bette Midler movies? Go die. Or rather, tune in for Reelz’ umpteenth showing of For the Boys. And so, sans raison-detre, Reelz now drifts, zombified, floating through the nether-regions of the cable Universe, searching for meaning. Lights on, nobody’s home. The once wacky “Z” on the end now stands for Zzzzzzzzzzz.

But wait! Have you seen the trades? Reelz is all over the headlines! In a huge effort to heighten its’ presence, Reelz has bought the troubled and controversial new mini-series The Kennedy’s, which proved to be too biographically questionable for any legitimate network to air. With this Hail Mary pass perhaps Reelz will finally have its fifteen minutes and be able to say “Fuck you, AMC! Who’s the shitty movie channel with exciting original programming now?!”