Quarantine Has Confirmed Network TV is the Worst Way to Watch Movies — But Also Kind of the Best

It’s a truly terrible way to watch a classic film, but not a bad way to have a communal experience in lockdown

Until the pandemic-induced quarantine upended the globe, network broadcasts of theatrical films seemed as unlikely to make a comeback as velociraptors. Apart from a few exceptions — like ABC’s annual airing of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments — theatrical films rarely get shown on major networks anymore. Regularly scheduled slots for movies, like The ABC Sunday Night Movie and The NBC Monday Movie faded away years ago after seeing their audiences chipped away first by pay cable and home video (which could offer all the sex and violence network TV wasn’t allowed to show), then by streaming services and VOD. Who wants to watch a movie cropped to the wrong aspect ratio, edited for content and time and interrupted by commercials, with so many other options available?

The apparent answer: at least some people still do, a sizable bunch, even. In a move to fill a slot made vacant by coronavirus-related scheduling woes, CBS recently brought back the long-slumbering CBS Sunday Movie for the first time since 2006. Announced as a five-week run but already extended to six, the revival’s selections have been limited in scope — drawing exclusively from the Viacom-owned Paramount library — but broad in appeal. So far the network has aired Raiders of the Lost Ark, Forrest Gump and Mission: Impossible with Titanic, not-long-ago the most financially successful movie ever made, set to air this weekend. 

There’s not a lot of adventurousness there — it’s not like the network is using those generous blocks of time to air Frederick Wiseman documentaries. But the revival’s existence has both stirred old memories of why movies used to work on TV and revived a communal experience that used to be common in an age of limited options.

In some ways, it’s not a revival at all. Even as streaming has changed our viewing habits, we’ve never really gotten out of the habit of watching movies on TV. When they’re not airing sports or original programming, cable networks like FX, TNT and AMC pretty much depend on viewers watching movies not because they’ve sought them out, but because they happen to be on. (“We hope you enjoyed Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials. Up next: Maze Runner: The Death Cure.”) But Saturday afternoon cable airings lack the prestige that networks used to bring to their primetime presentations.

Consider the overtures. If you’re of a certain age it’s hard not to have a Pavlovian response to the rousing music, vibrant graphics and booming voices that announced it was movie time on CBS:

Or NBC:

But both networks were regularly outdone by ABC. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, the network employed the services of Ernie Anderson, a former Cleveland TV horror host who moved to L.A. to pursue a career in acting. Instead, he became one of the industry’s premier announcers, capable of investing any phrase with drama just by the way he hit particular syllables. (He was also Paul Thomas Anderson’s father.)

Anderson’s voice was just one element that set the ABC intros apart. In its heyday, The ABC Sunday Night Movie joined pulse-quickening music to visuals that suggested viewers were traveling through a star-shaped tunnel, one that promised adventure and excitement on the other side. Most immediately, the tunnel gave way to short previews that worked as miniature works of art unto themselves. Take the intro to Alien, which paired Anderson’s voice with quick cuts from the film and eerie selections from the film’s soundscape:

And, sure, Sean Connery essentially sleepwalks his way through Diamonds Are Forever, his last outing in the official James Bond series, but who can remember that when Anderson promises, “Sean Connery’s at it again. This time he’s got everybody fooled!”

Primetime movie broadcasts had other odd charms as well. Sometimes they stretched out films too long to fit into a two-hour block over a couple of nights. Maybe the 1976 version of King Kong wasn’t so hot, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be a “two-night movie event.” Then there’s the matter of TV cuts. King Kong’s just one film to contain scenes not featured in its theatrical version. So did 1978’s Superman and John Carpenter’s Halloween. In fact, Carpenter even filmed additional scenes for the TV broadcast while making Halloween II (including one that set up the sequel’s out-of-nowhere revelation concerning the killer’s relationship to Jamie Lee Curtis’ character). 

Most of these longer versions have resurfaced on DVD and other home video options, but for a while they were the stuff of rumor and hazy memories of long-ago viewings. These additional scenes usually represented artistic compromises made of necessity — network TV was never going to show Halloween without some cuts and something had to fill that space — but they still managed to create their own weird lore.

It’s unlikely that these touches will ever make a full return. (CBS’ new intros have been pretty half-assed so far.) But the revival taps into another, even deeper appeal of watching movies on prime-time TV: the feeling that you’re taking part in a communal experience, even if you’re home alone. In this way, CBS’ decision to air much-seen modern classics makes a lot of sense. Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark chopped up with periodic interruptions for commercials would be a lousy way to see it for the first time. But for the umpteenth time? Why not? And why not get on social media and chat about the experience? It’s a truly terrible way to watch a classic film, but not a bad way to hang out under quarantine conditions.

CBS has enjoyed solid ratings with its movie offerings so far, and in a couple of weeks will tweak the format a bit with what it’s billing as a “sing-a-long” version of Grease (“the original high school musical!”) complete with stylized, karaoke-like graphics for viewers who want to join in. Though prime-time airings of theatrical movies seem unlikely to outlast the quarantine, it’s been weirdly comforting seeing them there again, a reminder that we share a common culture made up of rewatchable blockbusters and that, even now, communal events remain (sort of) possible. 

And a sing-along Grease is an almost too-perfect selection for the current moment, one to put in a time capsule to remember how we got through this. Picture it: A nation of viewers who’ve spent months in isolation joining together to sing “You’re the One That I Want” to nobody in particular, but also to everybody at once.