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October 8, 2015

TV 101: Channel Drift (or, what the hell happened to A&E?)

by Jay Black, posted Jan 21st 2008 10:01AM
I usually write something witty right here, but, uh... can't really concentrate...Do you remember coming back from your first semester at college and running into a kid you used to go to high school with who decided to use college as an excuse to totally reinvent him or herself? Like he was the class dork and in three months he's all of a sudden a death-metal anarchist? Or she dated the basketball team (the varsity, junior varsity, AND the freshmen) and now she dresses like Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman?

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.

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you say that all channels need to be profitable but i wonder how much money TCM makes a year?

April 21 2011 at 3:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Nicholas Robinson

Reading these posts that are three years old almost makes me nostalgic. Almost every single channel mentioned has descended far, far further into trailer-park programming, to the point where I just call A&E the DTBH channel (Dog the Bounty Hunter), National Geographic the DW Channel (Dog Whisperer), History the Hitler Channel, Military the Hitler Channel, Food Network the Top Chef Channel, Space (the Canadian Sci-Fi channel) the Star Trek Franchise channel and the Bravos and the Discoveries I no longer watch at all. There's not much left, is there? The 12-channel universe showed 500 shows. The 500-channel universe shows 12 shows.

Listen to music or read a book instead.

March 04 2011 at 2:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I found this lovely gem while looking for old history channel programs! How ironic.
I could not agree more with you on this. CartoonNetwork has turned into crap and is hardly worth watching anymore, my beloved History Channel is going reality-tv on me (thinks of Ice Road Truckers and Ax-Men *sobs*) and all I see on the Discovery Channel is Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs (though I do like these shows...).

I crave something dynamic, different, and dare I say, intellectually-stimulating! Not all the "young people" in the world are like those ignorant and shameless youth on MTV!

April 09 2008 at 12:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i found this website & this posting by simply entering in the entire phrase, "what the hell happened to Sci-Fi?" into the dogpile search engine. was i surprised that something actually turned up and that it was an intelligent article with good observance going on in the conversation thread.

i have long thought that 'channel drift' as it has been coined is more like channel hi-jacking. no doubt that there is a lowest common denominator, profits & greed as highly relevant suspects, but i think there is also a deliberate lowering of that common denominator and deliberate getting rid of things that do not tow the party line of acceptability in a country where almost anything culturally relevant is being dictated to the public and where the public is being deliberately dumbed down and or lead away from truth or merely entertainment that encourages thought processes that are not approved of.

seriously, i have been wondering why on earth when i could see Bugs Bunny several times a day on several channels why it has been hijacked and hidden away without the same accessibility it use to enjoy. if it were not bought up, locked up and hidden away, aired on the same channels at various times it would still be watched i believe with the same frequency. but Bugs had a different set of values that are not altogether embraced by thought police in this day in age, so he is often seen as dangerous.

the ECW thing is an execs elitist view that what was on Sci-Fi before GE owned it was trailer park crap anyway, so why not throw this crap on there too? nevermind that the decision pissed off serious viewers.

Burns & Allen? we'll probably never see it again. it will go out to pasture with Monty Python, Cheech & Chong, The Young Ones, The Prisoner, full uncut Carol Burnett Show, One Step Beyond, Night Gallery, game shows that do not sell to you, My Favorite Martian, Woody Woodpecker, Mary Hartman, Soap, The Smothers Brothers, Laugh In, Love American Style, Three Stooges, Little Rascals, that show about God where James Garner provided the voice, Ren & Stimpy, Edwin Murrow styled journalism, Soupy Sales, Uncle Milty, history that is not obsessed with the sneaky violent prowess of nazis, etc, etc, etc.

you shuck out the bucks to get the channels that show the content you want, and the idiots who own the major networks get jealous that you've abandoned their stale moronic crap, so they buy the channels you ran to in order to ruin them with the same junk you ran from. so you pay more money to run from those and look elsewhere for the entertainment you want & they acquire those channels as well.

i cried when AMC, Bravo, MTV & others started accepting commercial advertising. it became clear who would dictate the schedules. for that matter, i cried when United Online took over Juno, Netzero & others and took the free internet to the grave.

there will always be someone out there who owns & controls what you love who has his price and will sell to the highest bidder. that's the problem. we know that GE-NBC, VIACOM, Rupert Murdock suck, so we reject them. we understand they for the most part do not offer what we want and they dictate entertainment that does not entertain.

the day there is a library of quality channels that exist that are not publicly traded as a corporate entity and are not for sale is the day that the need for threads like this may disappear.

April 07 2008 at 9:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I completely agree with your channel drift theory. Haven't read all the replies, but I would add National Geographic (Nat Geo as they are billing themselves), NICK.
My oservations are that almost all channels have fallen into a pattern of showing the same show continuosly for hours on end. Bravo! might as well rename themselves to the Project Runway channel or the West Wing channel. Why the heck is it that, with a plethora of material spanning the better part of the last century and 7 years into this one, we don't see a broader spectrum of programming?
There seems to be a deliberate movement to limit what is on most channels to the very very recent past. Can TBS find a movei besides Miss Congeniality to run? Turner Classics is one of the few who try to stay focused and DOES have a memory greater than three years ago. This is slightly tangential, but I agree with Rick Steves, the travel author, who believes there is an effort in this country to dumb us all down. TV is the yellow brick road. The movie NETWORK really says it all.

January 28 2008 at 2:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Cartoon Network.. live action on this channel is wrong!

January 25 2008 at 3:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What?!? MTV had MUSIC VIDEOS?? Actually, they had darned good videos back in the late 70's and most of the 80's...
"Channel Drift" is a good term, and one that I'm adopting as of now. This phenomenon has ruined several cable channels for me, and the unfortunate thing is that, even with ever-expanding choices, no one has stepped in to fill the voids they left. IFC did pick up the unedited foreign film genre, but they're starting to "drift" too. TLC? Never too interested, but it's become a travesty and should be forced to change its name for false advertising. I think A&E remains the biggest disappointment; who would willingly trade the beautifully crafted Sherlock Holmes series, or the original productions such as Hornblower (with Ioan Griffudd) for whatever schlock they're running now (I don't even check their listings in the paper anymore)? Even USA, which is pretty much Law and Order-24/7, aspired to higher things once upon a time; does anyone remember the made-for-cable movie "The Railway Station Man", with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie? Channel drift is a sad state of affairs for which I can offer no solution..

January 23 2008 at 2:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
El in AZ

No one here has mentioned Headline News. For years, you could turn it on 24/7/365 and get a gloss-over of the day's events in news, sports, weather and entertainment... Every 30 minutes.

In primetime now, HLN is nothing but the talking head shoutfest that every other cable "news" channel has become. It's all opinion in primetime.

Not to mention that in many markets, the last 5 minutes of each half hour is covered by whatever local TV station has paid for the right to do a local news cut-in. Of course, these cut-ins are simply hours old news with a promo for the next (unwatchable, piece of garbage) newscast on their own channel. The last 5 minutes, of course, are where Jeanne Moos' great feature stories are aired.

To be clear, CNNH promos a feature package throughout the first 25 minutes of each "show," but then that section of the show is covered by your local affiliate. That's not frustrating for the viewer!

And lastly, in Phoenix, Cox cable comes back from commercial breaks 30 seconds to a minute late EVERY SINGLE MORNING. They cover CNNH programming with their own local spots or promos. Headline News resumes in-progress.

January 22 2008 at 4:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Since I only see cable very little, like when I'm house-sitting for friends who have cable, and I don't blink until I come back home, I don't get to see that much of what's happened. I do miss the old A& E who gave us the Horatio Hornblower series (most fans, usually of the female variety, actually blamed actor Ioan Gruffudd for ending the series because he's Mr Fantastic now, but it was A&E who dropped the ax on that.) and I miss the Sharpe's series too. When those disappeared it was the beginning of the end, which was heralded by Dog and the Gotti family, after that there pretty much ceased to be any Art in that Entertaining.

Mtv/Mtv 2 and VH1 have been an even bigger disappointment. I was one of those teens who watched religiously and even taped my fave videos. Now where's the videos? VH1 Classics last time I looked and I don't dare to anymore.

Biography stopped showing Biographies, and showed HH and Sharpes, but I haven't seen that channel in a long while so I don't know what they show anymore.

Bravo used to be an arts channel too, showed quirky films like Withnail and I and such. So sad to see everything shift in such a hodgy podgy cathc all fashion.

January 22 2008 at 8:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Re-reading the comments and the post by Jay, has drift become 2008's "jump the shark?"

January 22 2008 at 1:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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