TCM experts know our two on-air hosts, Ben Mankiewicz and Robert Osborne, but what about the third voice of TCM? If you’ve watched any of TCM’s packaged segments, their monthly news segments or, before the end of summer, seen their “what’s next” guide then you’ve heard and enjoyed the dulcet tones of voice actress Robin Bittman. The unseen third voice of the TCM network Bittman’s work for TCM has informed us and, particularly late at night, provided a soothing voice as she describes what’s worth checking out at 4am. She recently sat down to talk to me about her work, both for and outside the network, whether it’s difficult pronouncing the name “Mankiewicz” and more.
Kristen: What’s it been like for you to be the unofficial “voice” of TCM. You’re such an integral part of the network, and yet so many people don’t immediately recognize your name.
Robin Bittman: Thanks Kristen! I am fortunate to have been on-air with TCM for a number of years and am honored to think that people may recognize me or even think of me as the “voice” of TCM. It’s definitely a network I’m proud to be a part of. I believe TCM does use many gifted voiceover talents for different projects.
K: How did you become involved with TCM? Was there an audition process?
RB: I began with TCM in 2000, 15 years ago! I started working with TCM after I sent a demo to the network in 2000 and spoke to the Creative Director. He liked what he heard and soon after called me in to the studio to work on a promo for him. I nearly died I was so happy. I always thought highly of TCM’s work, it was so creative. In June 2000, I voiced a promo “Footwork: Dance in the Movies” for Chris Merrifield, the Creative Director at the time. I had such a great experience working on it with him, I knew I wanted to work with TCM more. From then on I was called in to voice promos for a movie or special project as needed. Then they asked if I could be their weekly voice for the menus and upcoming movie tags. Of course I was thrilled and said yes.
As a voiceover talent, I am always behind the scenes and only a small group of people who are tuned into that kind of stuff will recognize me. Celebrities are often recognizable but most of us plain ‘ol VO people go undiscovered and that’s ok for me. However, I really do appreciate it when something does get noticed by the producers I work with, my peers or viewers. It is nice to get some feedback.
K: Were you always a fan of classic films? How, or has, TCM expanded your knowledge/interest in classic cinema? What is your favorite classic movie?
RB: I have always been a serious fan of the movies from all eras. In the classic film world I love Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Thin Man and all of Kurosawa’s films, and anything with Bette Davis, to name a few. TCM has definitely expanded my knowledge of classic films which in turn increased my appreciation for many classic films as I got to know more about the “players” from different periods. Now I have so many entries on my list for movies and documentaries to catch up on I think I’ll need to live a second lifetime!
K: What’s a typical TCM day like for you in terms of the recording process? I’m assuming you’re based where the TCM offices are in Atlanta or do you fly in when they need you? What’s it been like to work with them now?
RB: I am based in Atlanta which is where TCM is based. I do however spend a lot of time as well in NYC, which is where I’m originally from.
I used to record for TCM at Turner studios in midtown Atlanta, then for a number of years we worked at a local audio studio, Doppler. Then technology changed everything and made it possible for me to set up my own home studio and record directly to the studios at Turner and that’s what we still do today.
The people I work with are creative, smart, funny and just regular good folks. They really know classic films and I love working with them. I used to have a weekly session set up and we would record all the menus and tags coming up for the following month. Now I’m on call, so they contact me when they have a project and we schedule a session. So that can vary each week as to how many sessions I may do and what I work on.
As a voiceover talent, my day starts and it changes as the day progresses and projects come up. I try to be available and connected so I can always respond quickly to things as they happen.
K: You always sound so calm, cool and collected. Is what you do a labor intensive process? Are there times when the words just don’t come out right?
RB: Haha, yes! There are moments when I encounter a word or a name that just doesn’t stick with me and I have to come up with a trick for remembering the pronunciation. And there are days when your mouth won’t move as quickly as your brain or you aren’t as connected to the story as you would like to be when telling it. After years of being in this business however, I’ve become much better at doing my preparation for my work day or my session so that doesn’t happen much. However, I believe life is always a work in progress so the quest to improve never ends and I totally enjoy what I do so I attempt to do a better job every time I record.
K: With the above question being said, are your promos heavily scripted or is there room to play? I recall one of the “Up Next” promos with your male counterpart making a really funny statement about “Ray Milland wants dirty deeds done dirt cheap in Dial M for Murder.” I thought that was genius. Are things like that encouraged?
RB: That is a great line! My guess is it comes from the writer/producers at TCM, they were encouraged to be as witty as they can within the context when it came to menus. There have been so many great one liners, the menus were once 30 seconds long and we really got into it! As you can imagine, writing menus was a labor intensive project, so many movies! That’s probably why it came to an end. TV networks are dealing with more limited resources these days, meaning staff and money. So they have to be more careful as to how and where they focus their time & talent. (This is my personal opinion.)
To answer your question, the scripts are pretty well set by the time I get it. For promos and narrative projects, they have been passed around and approved by lots of people smarter than me on the topic, so I don’t mess with it unless we find a grammatical error or something minor.
With the menus and tags, we had more room to change things if something didn’t work and usually the producers would re-write it as we recorded, I sometimes added something helpful that was used but more often it came from the producer.
K: TCM went to wordless schedules, you were the one telling us what was next, but what other TCM based promos and, have, can and will people hear your voice?
RB: This has actually been a very fun transition period for me in my work with TCM. I am doing all sorts of projects now and still get to do upcoming movie tags. I do miss the movie menus but things always change, especially in TV. Currently, I’m voicing the TCM Movie News updates monthly, web shopping spots, I did promos for Trailblazing Women in October and voiced a narrative on the new Suffragette movie in theatres now, promos for Disney & upcoming Fathom events on-air and in theatres, spots about the new TCM Wine Club, etc. Every project is different. There are a few things that may be regular gigs and the rest will be based on their future programs coming up.
K: One of my readers would like to know if you’ve ever been tripped up saying the last name Mankiewicz?
RB: Ha! I have not tripped up saying Ben’s last name as of yet, but now that you mention it I will take extra care to be sure I don’t! Ben Mankiewicz is such a good guy I would never want to mess up his name!
K: I’m assuming you’ve met and hung out with the TCM hosts, Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz although your work and theirs wouldn’t generally cross paths.
RB: I have met them both a couple of times and they are the nicest people. I have not had the pleasure of hanging out with them but maybe if we put that idea out there into the universe, it may happen one day…I would love that. I am never around the studios when they are shooting unfortunately.
K: You do voice-over work in other areas outside TCM. How did you get into voice work in general? Where else can people hear your dulcet tones?
RB: I trained in New York City and began as a stage actress, then I moved to Atlanta and started getting into commercial and corporate work as well as voice over; there wasn’t a lot of TV & film work in Atlanta at that time. When I became a mom, I moved more into VO so I wouldn’t be gone as much from home. Then I grew to love it and did very well at it, so my career just went in that direction.
I do all sorts of VO from fun stuff on Adult Swim to CNBC, and ION television. I work with TNT and CNN internationally as well. I work for Television networks around the country, doing everything from entertainment programs to news. I am also a regular voice for long format narration from programs on television to projects for the United Way, CARE and corporate programs. I also voice political campaigns.
K: With such a long-standing relationship and career around your voice, have you ever been offered or would like the opportunity to be an on-camera host? (I’d personally endorse this since TCM doesn’t have a female host other than Sally Field.)
RB: What a fun idea, I always like to hear & see women hosting as well and I love the series that TCM just did on Trailblazing women. Also Tina Fey will be the guest programmer for December, that should be great!
K: Have you ever attended a TCM Film Festival?
RB: I have been to two TCM Festivals so far and we were hoping to go again this year but I’m not sure I can with all the other trips I need to make this year which will be disappointing if I can’t. We have such a great time. I think two years ago the panel was held late on Sunday, is that right? I had to miss it as I flew back Sunday afternoon for work that Monday morning. I think Scott McGee said he mentioned my name that day.
K: Do you have a favorite TCM promo or similar that you enjoy recording?
RB: I have so many favorites but a recent one is the narrative read I did for “In Theatres Now” on the Suffragette movie with Meryl Streep. It’s a story that’s important to me personally as a woman and I love looking back at the strong female characters (and actresses who portrayed them) in classic films. I was proud to contribute to that project.
K: Just as a viewer of the channel – I’m assuming, of course – do you have a favorite TCM theme (like Summer Under the Stars, 31 Days of Oscar, etc.).
RB: I guess if you make me pick it would be Summer Under the Stars as I love that whole concept and the movies that are presented. It brings up fond memories of watching movies outdoors and summer and fun and somehow there always seems to be a little more time in the summer to sit back, relax and watch a really good movie with friends and family.
Thanks again to Robin Bittman!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.