TV 101: Channel Drift (or, what the hell happened to A&E?)
There was always something disturbing about it. Not so much that they had changed -- everyone has a right to change -- but because what they now were was different from the template you had made for them. When the universe doesn't act like you expect it to, you get uneasy; it's a natural reaction. I couldn't help but feel that way this week, when I watched A&E's new show Parking Wars.
I'm not going to debate the relative merits of Parking Wars. As a reality show goes, it's pretty standard: stressed-out people dealing with stressful situations while over-the-top editing and music ratchet up the stress even further. If you were a fan of the similar shows about airports and casinos, then you'll enjoy Parking Wars.
What I don't understand is what a show about meter maids is doing on a channel that's ostensibly devoted to "Arts and Entertainment." Parking Wars is the final nail in the coffin of whatever pretensions A&E had of being a high-brow network.
(And don't say, "But Jay, the name of the channel is the Arts and Entertainment channel. Surely, Parking Wars falls under the banner of Entertainment!" Yeah, but the Arts in front of that Entertainment implies we're going to get something a little different than a slopped together show about Philadelphia meter maids. Going to the Arts and Entertainment channel and finding Parking Wars is like going to a place called the "Fine Dining and Dancing Hall" only to find a roast beef buffet and a strip club.)
A&E is the latest in a long line of cable channels suffering from what I call channel drift. I define "channel drift" as the condition a cable channel finds itself in when it loses its original, stated purpose, and starts moving towards more mainstream (and usually less distinctive) programming. There are plenty of examples of channel drift: A&E, VH1, TLC, MTV, and Bravo, just to name a few.
So far as I can tell, there are three contributing factors to channel drift:
1) Cultural pretensions (most prevalent in: A&E, TLC, Bravo). For as much as people pretend that the term "Lowest Common Denominator" applies to everyone but them, it's a pretty all-inclusive term. We all like to think that we're the intellectual exception to the Idiocracy rule, but chances are, we aren't. Art -- real art, not pretend art -- is rarely appreciated outside of a small cultural elite. (And when I say, "cultural elite," I don't mean "everyone registered democrat," as Rush Limbaugh uses the term; I mean the neck-bearded, beret-wearing types that quote Joyce's Ulysses not just because they're trying to bed a hot lit major, but because they actually read it.)
The fact of the matter is, most of us ARE low brow. I know I am. Despite a degree in English, I'm currently devouring five Star Wars books for every real novel I read. I used to feel bad about that, now I'm just curious whether or not Jaina Solo is actually going to kill Darth Caedus.
A little bit of art never killed anyone (with the exception of Jacques Sauniere). But when a network decides it's going to be the home of serious, intellectual enlightenment, it's setting the bar way too high for itself and almost guaranteeing that ratings reality will soon set in, sending the channel drifting from its original purpose. A ratings grab here and a rating grab there and all of a sudden a network that once called itself "The Learning Channel" is running a show about people building motorcycles. I guess that's kinda sorta learning, but it's not exactly Quantum String Theory, is it?
2) A need to be profitable (most prevalent in: MTV, VH1). All channels need to be profitable, I get that. But, there's a difference between "we're just glad we're here" profitability and "we've been a cash cow for five years and we need to keep that up" profitability. The difference is in expectations.
Here's what I mean: when MTV first started, it was an experiment. Since everyone figured it was doomed to failure, all it needed to do to succeed was NOT fail. Massive profits weren't necessary; so long as MTV paid the bills, the people running it could be happy. Because of this, the channel was allowed to follow its muse, which, in the case of MTV, was actually music.
As time went on, however, MTV started to turn a profit. A real profit. The kind of profit that attracted suit-wearing, cigar-smoking, baby-blood-drinking, big-time business interest. Once MTV became a corporate entity, it not only needed to repeat past success, it had to top it. Thus, a music channel with a reality show as its top rated program became, almost overnight, a reality channel that sometimes has music on it.
You can't remain true to a vision when ratings and profit are dragging you in another direction.
I call this the Ronald Miller rule. If you remember, Ronald Miller was Patrick Dempsy's character in Can't Buy Me Love (the movie where the school's biggest dork pays the school's hottest girl to date him, figuring he'll get popular by association). When he was a dork, he could be himself (a self that improbably wooed super-hot cheerleader, Cindy Mancini). But once he got a taste of the big-time, hanging with the popular kids, he started doing anything he could to maintain his popularity, even going so far as to smear his former best friend's house with dog poop.
(And yes, this is just a long way of saying that I do, indeed, think that executives at MTV smeared Martha Quinn's house with dog poop.)
3) Vagueness of initial purpose (most prevalent in: Bravo, A&E, VH1, TLC). Think about The Weather Channel for a moment. It doesn't come any simpler than that. It's pretty much guaranteed that at any given moment of the day, turning on The Weather Channel will result in seeing something weather related. Programming a channel like that is so easy even the guy who greenlighted Cavemen could do it. Same goes for things like The History Channel (documentaries about Hitler, occasionally other shows); ESPN (sports, Steven A. Smith screaming about things); Sci-Fi (Battlestar Galactica, and, er, I might be mistaken, but I believe that's the only show on that network); and Lifetime (horrible shows commissioned by PSYOPS experts to break down the terrorists).
Channels like that maintain their identity precisely because their identity is so easily identifiable.
Networks suffering from channel drift have an identity that's muddled at best, impossible to discern at worst. Bravo, for example. Just what the hell is Bravo? I mean, I love Top Chef as much as the next comfortable-in-his-sexuality fella, but why is it on Bravo? Does the name Bravo somehow imply that it should be programming food-based reality shows? When you first heard that there was going to be a Survivor-type show about chefs, was your first thought, "Well, that's obviously a show for Bravo"? Of course not!
I defy anyone, including the executives AT Bravo to tell me what the identity of that channel is.
VH1 isn't any better. It's gone through so many makeovers in its two decade history it makes Jenny from Forrest Gump seem stable by comparison. Remember when it showed videos? How about when it was aping the mid-90s incarnation of A&E by running the Biography-styled Behind the Music? Howsabout when it started devouring pop-culture like it was a Langolier with Pop-Up Video and the I Love the <insert decade here>'s? One wonders how long its latest incarnation as "celeb-reality" peddler will last and what will replace it. My own vote is for "Dadaist anti-television," though you could argue that Rock of Love is the first foray into that territory.
Channel drift isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm not arguing that channels should cement themselves in one format and stick with it forever. I'm also not arguing that a channel shouldn't take a chance on an idea that is outside its stated identity. (There's no guarantee that Top Chef would have found a place on its natural home, the Food Network. If Bravo hadn't channel drifted, we wouldn't have Padma and Chef Tom to enjoy. That's a world I don't want to live in.)
I do, however, think that channel drift adds to the disturbing volume of White Noise that the average consumer of entertainment is currently drowning in. Our cable box has become a junk-drawer: completely disorganized, with the stuff we actually want hiding where we least expect it. On top of that, because we have a hard time finding shows where we should expect them to be, it forces the networks to scream even louder for our attention, both in their advertising and in the obnoxious content of their programming.
So, if channel drift isn't necessarily terrible, but I am, in theory, against it, what is my solution? Here's my idea: any channel that produces a show completely outside of its wheelhouse can do so only if it starts each episode of that show with a short introduction from the network's president explaining why it's airing there instead of where it belongs. This will actually serve to reinforce that network's identity by acknowledging that the show doesn't fit with its regular schedule. And, if too many shows on a network start to air with an introduction, it will become embarrassing for the network and force it to figure out a new identity.
Yeah, okay, there's no chance of this happening, but you can't accuse me of being one of those columnists who point out a problem without offering any solutions. I offer plenty of solutions, just no practical ones. Before you ask, yes, I have considered running for public office; I have just the kind of forward-looking brand of BS that America needs!
I would like your input, though. Have you seen channel drift on networks other than the ones mentioned above? Do you have a solution for it? Do you think that the idea of flow-walking was introduced into The Legacy of the Force series so they can have Jacen go back in time to stop from turning to the Dark Side? Let me know in the comments!
Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go set my TiVo to record Breaking Bad on the American Movie Classics channel.