In the early 1980s, TBS appeared to be on a mission to ensure that every American with cable TV saw Spencer's Mountain. Earl Hamner, Jr.'s family drama, a precursor to his hit TV series The Waltons, must have been broadcast three or four times a year. TBS showered similar affection on The Molly Maguires (which, ironically, rarely pops on TV today) and The Trouble With Angels (sometimes shown on Rosalind Russell "days" on TCM).
However, none of the previously mentioned films can hold a candle to the reigning champion: Road House (1989). Honestly, it must be broadcast on some channel in the U.S. at least monthly. I always think of Road House as a brainless drive-in movie (perhaps, in large part, because I originally saw it at an outdoor theater). The first half offers a surprisingly high fun quotient with Patrick Swayze being hired as a bouncer to clean up an exceptionally rowdy small-town bar--the kind where the band (nicely played by The Jeff Healey Band) rocks out from behind a safety screen. Anyway, despite the arrival of silver-maned Sam Elliott as Patrick's mentor, Road House loses it way en route to an incredulous showdown between Swayze and Ben Gazzara.Wait a minute...why am I bothering to discuss the plot of Road House? You've probably seen it a half-dozen times!
So why is Road House shown so frequently? Ratings, of course, and that's a product of the film's enduring appeal, which can be defined in two words: Patrick Swayze (okay, maybe there's a little Sam Elliott effect... let's say 7%). Swayze wasn't a great actor, but he was a very likable one that appealed to females (Ghost, Dirty Dancing) and males (cult fave Red Dawn). In Road House, he engages in lively brawls (for the guys) and also takes his shirt off an awful lot (for the gals). Let's not forget that television is all about demographics and Swayze's cross-gender appeal makes Road House an obvious favorite.
While Road House may reign supreme, here are the four runners-up in my pageant of most popular movies shown on television:
Overboard (1987) - Like Swayze, Goldie Hawn is a star with broad appeal, but why is this comedy favored over other Hawn vehicles like Private Benjamin and Protocol? I think the answer lies in its classic comedy plot about an heiress who gets amnesia and thinks she's married to a working-class slob with unruly kids. Plus, for the record, I think it's one of her funniest films and the real-life chemistry between her and Kurt Russell is obvious.
A Summer Place (1959) - This lush soap has become a TCM favorite over the past two years (and, back in the 1990s, TNT loved it too). There's Troy Donahue for the girls, Sandra Dee for the guys, Dorothy McGuire and Richard Egan for classic film fans, a famous theme, and (for some) an element of camp. It's got so much going for it that I'm surprised it's not shown more often.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) - It's hard to figure out why Shawshank is shown so often--other than the fact that it's an excellent movie and a lot of people like it. I think it's that simple, because there's actually a lot going against it. Neither of the stars (both fine actors) have huge followings (when is the last time you heard someone remark: "Let's go see the new Morgan Freeman movie!"). Plus, at 142 minutes, it eats up a lot of a channel's viewing schedule.
Beach Blanket Bingo (1964) - As a later-in-life Beach Party fan, I've done some self-analysis on this film's lasting popularity. One can't discount its entertainment value and the catchy songs, but its appeal can be mostly attributed to a nostalgia factor that's extremely high for baby boomers.
Honorable mentions among the most frequently shown movies on TV: The Wizard of Oz, any of the James Bond movies, Rocky and its sequels, and White Christmas.
Can you think of any additions to this list?