Above: Green= flat, or Academy; Red = widescreen; Blue = CinemaScope.
When American Movie Classics, as it was then known, first went on the air, it had a half-day schedule, and split its satellite time with another network, and had a somewhat limited playlist. Nevertheless, all the films it ran were uncut, commercial-free, and presented in their original aspect ratio, whether Academy, widescreen, or CinemaScope (and their related formats). In time, American Movie Classics became a 24 hour network, running commercial free, uncut classic films, and I watched it all the time.
Then, as everyone who loves movies know, American Movie Classics “rebranded” itself as AMC, started running commercials, and hacking their films to ribbons (they’re all still complete, mind you, just intercut with hundred of commercials to completely ruin the film’s impact).
I never watch AMC anymore, and in fact, regret it when I see a film I love advertised as forthcoming on the channel; I know I won’t watch it, I know it will be shredded with hundreds of ads, and I know it won’t be a movie at all, but rather an excuse to sell commercial time.
The Independent Film Channel, for many years, also ran films uncut and commercial free, but then they recently began running ads — while still advertising the films they present as “uncut” — but once again, you’re not seeing the movie you want, but rather the movie you wanted to see intercut with ads urging to you to buy this or that product, and so now, I don’t watch IFC anymore.
This could be because IFC wants consumers to move to their IFC in Theaters service, which I use quite frequently anyway; first run films presented on cable for a per-film fee the same day they open in theaters in “selected cities.” These commercials are uncut and commercial free, and presented in their original aspect ratios, and you pay for each one, but that seems fair; it’s cheaper than going to a theater to see them, especially when the nearest theater running the film is 1,000 miles away or so.
But now, there are only three basic cable services left that really run feature films uncut and commercial free, in the original aspect ratio their makers intended; Fox Movie Channel (FMC), which, not surprisingly, runs only 20th Century Fox films, but dips deep into their back catalogue, and so is often deeply satisfying; The Sundance Channel, which also has a somewhat limited catalogue, but again, runs the films as they were meant to be seen; and, of course, Turner Classic Movies, or TCM, easily the best of the lot.
Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin on the set of TCM’s The Essentials
TCM runs classic feature films and shorts 24/7, with absolutely no commercials (except for DVDs of the films they screen, promos for upcoming films, and self-promotional blurbs, inbetween the films, but never during), and, as hosted by Robert Osborne, who is insanely knowledgeable about films, is arguably the finest “repertory house” the cinema has ever known, with an enormous collection of MGM and UA films, and a lease on numerous Columbia titles as well, to say nothing of their excellent catalogue of foreign films.
Robert Osborne has been ill of late, as everyone who cares about TCM also knows, and is now on hiatus, while various guest hosts fill in. All I can say is that I wish him Godspeed in his return to health, and to the TCM set, to continue with the work he has done so brilliantly for the past ten years, introducing everything from Yakuza films to Ingrid Bergman’s early films in Sweden to classic MGM product to Buster Keaton silents, with every imaginable stop inbetween.
And one other, very important thing: TCM, Fox Movie Channel, and Sundance nearly always run the films they screen in their original aspect ratio. If it was shot in Scope, you see it in Scope, with the signature black bars at the top and bottom of the screen; if in widescreen, then with slightly smaller bars; and if in Academy, in full frame.
This is something you can’t say of HBO, Showtime or the other so-called “premium” channels, who as a rule screen “pan and scan” versions of CinemaScope and widescreen films, so that up to one half of the original image is lost, all in the name of “filling the entire screen” with an image, even if it’s only half of the original image the director photographed.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in “pan and scan” format
“Pan and scan” is, as Martin Scorsese has said (see below), tantamount to “redirecting the movie” — the sides of the frame are cut off, backgrounds eliminated, characters chopped out of the frame, all in the service of presenting a “full screen” image.
But as Scorsese and others have pointed out over the years, with “pan and scan,” while you get a “full frame” with no black bars at the top and bottom, you’re not seeing the whole film. You get less, not more.
HBO and the other “premium” channels do offer what they term “wide” versions of the some of their films in their on-demand section, but for their regular offerings, pan and scan is the rule.
So, to summarize, there are copious commercials on IFC, AMC, and all the other basic cable channels; “pan and scan” versions on HBO, Cinemax, and the other “premium” services; so if you want to see feature films in their original aspect ratios, without commercials, time compression, or editing, you have really only three choices to see the whole film, uncut, unedited, as it was meant to be seen by its makers:
TCM, FMC and Sundance.
See a video explanation of “pan and scan” here, as produced by TCM, with directors Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and others explaining why “pan and scan” really robs the viewer of the original filmmakers’ intent; truly, essential viewing.