Fifteen cable networks that have encountered channel drift
At the beginning of the year the beautiful and sexy Jay Black presented a wonderful dissertation on the state of channel drift in cable television that discussed many of the reasons for this phenomenon. Being someone who likes to jump on an idea and trample it to death, I decided to expand on Jay's initial premise and provide some specific examples of cable networks that have drifted one way or another. Yet, being someone who likes to add something to an existing idea before the trampling begins, I decided a twist was in order.
Since a drift can range from 'small, but noticeable' to 'am I on the right channel?' a ratings system needed to be designed to determine how far a channel has gotten away from its origins. So, in the fifteen examples I list after the jump, you will see one of four categories...Minor Shift, Moderate Shift, Major Shift and Mother of All Channel Shifts. It is these four categories that you can use to agree or disagree with my findings once they are presented. So, without a continuing narration, here are the cable networks that have encountered some sort of channel drift.
Cartoon Network - This is an interesting example as the changes that have gone on at Cartoon Network since its beginnings in 1992 may be more of the network growing up as opposed to shifting its attentions. Yes, the network has shunted its older cartoons, both original and acquired, to its sister network Boomerang, but it certainly isn't like the network has foregone all cartoons in favor of live-action programming. Granted, it has been toying with one or two live-action shows related to cartoons and is currently airing some live-action movies on Sunday nights. That, however, may be the network's way to start competing with more successful kids' networks like Nickelodeon and Disney Channel. For all intents and purposes, Cartoon Network is still fully involved with acquiring and creating new cartoons.
GSN - Here's an example of a cable network that originally had a major shift in one direction only to shift back to its former format. After a very successful run that combined classic and original game shows, Game Show Network became GSN in 2004 and experimented by adding reality and other non-game show programs to the schedule. Eventually, shows like World Series of Poker, Kenny vs. Spenny, The Amazing Race, and Arsenio Hall's version of Star Search. Two years later, the network realized that the experiment had failed and they slowly began to restore some of the original programming back along with some new game shows. And, while shows like World Series of Poker still exist, GSN has returned to the network that fans had previously enjoyed.
History - This is one of those instances where the channel shift that is taking place right now is minor but could become major sometime in the future. This is due to some of the new programming that has graced the network's schedule over the last few years. While History (formerly The History Channel) still offers numerous documentary programs on various aspects of history it is also venturing into reality territory with such shows as Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men, and Tougher in Alaska. Whether this trend continues or not will depend on the popularity of these non-history programs.
The Weather Channel - Yes, believe it or not, The Weather Channel has gone through a channel shift. And, not just because the Earth faces an environmental crisis that could make the Atlantic Ocean much closer to many of us on the Eastern seaboard. When the network first premiered in 1982 it was weather, weather, weather all of the time. Over the last year or so the network has begun adding some weather-related, long-form programs to the schedule. Shows like It Could Happen Tomorrow, which talks about improbable, but not impossible events like an earthquake in New York City, or Forecast Earth, which takes a look at the changing weather environments on the planet. With the network's acquisition by NBC Universal this past summer who knows what future changes there may be to programming? Who knows? There could be a reality show based on the life of Jim Cantore in the very near future (and if there is, please make sure I'm credited with the idea).
Sci Fi - Here's an example of a network that is trying to force a channel shift but has to fight through a very critical fan base. Home to shows like Battlestar Galactica, Stargate Atlantis and Eureka, the network, most likely under the heavy hand of NBC Universal, began airing the WWE's Extreme Championship Wrestling on Tuesday nights. Now, while professional wrestling has always been considered extreme fantasy, in no way was it considered programming fare for the Sci Fi Channel. Yet, it has become one of the most popular shows on the network.
Sci Fi has also aired programming from other NBC Universal networks in the last few years. Two years ago the network aired a marathon of Law and Order: SVU episodes that had a sense of weirdness or fantasy to them. It was not met with great fanfare. There has been talk this year from network executives that Sci Fi channel may start airing more and more non-science fiction fare. However, with the science fiction and fantasy genres so much in the mainstream these days it will be interesting to see if this channel continues to shift programming in another direction.
TV Land - High School Reunion. She's Got the Look. High School Reunion. She's Got the Look. High School Reunion. She's Got the Look. Oh, and lots and lots of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The home of classic comedies, dramas and retro commercials recently shifted their attentions towards a younger generation of viewers and began airing a number of reality programs. Programs that were promoted ad nauseum on the network. Oh, shows like I Love Lucy and Leave it to Beaver still air but they air fewer times than episodes of Third Rock from the Sun and the aforementioned Extreme Makeover.
ABC Family - When ABC bought Fox Family back in 2001 it really was a family-oriented channel with hours of children's programming and reruns of shows mainly from the Miller-Boyett catalog (Full House, Family Matters, Step by Step). It also aired The 700 Club in a number of time slots as part of the original Cristian Broadcasting Network agreement. By 2006 the network's drift to a more mature audience began. They shuffled off their Jetix slate of cartoons to Toon Disney, changed their slogan to 'A New Kind of Family', and began airing programs that weren't as family-friendly as once broadcast. Since then, programs like Greek, Kyle XY, The Secret Life of an American Teenager and The Middleman have become hits and fan favorites for a new type of viewing audience.
Oh, and the reason that ABC Family can't drop the 'Family' portion of their moniker for a more mature name is thanks to an agreement with Pat Robertson during the initial sale of CBN years ago. Robertson stipulated that 'Family' remain as part of the network name forever, no matter who owns it. Hence, the reason why 700 Club remains on the ABC Family schedule to this day (though, the channel now stipulates before each installment airs that it is no way affiliated with 700 Club).
AMC - While a good portion of the shifts made by the channels mentioned in this list haven't been received well, the programming changes for AMC have been met with very positive reviews. At least now. In the beginning, AMC was similar in format to Turner Movie Classics -- airing commercial-free classic movies. But, by 2002, things had changed. The classic movies originally aired were put in storage in exchange for more modern releases. Widescreen versions of the films were replaced by pan-and-scan versions. Commercials were added to the network, so all of the gratuitous violence, nudity and swearing were removed from the films. The result: just another cable channel airing movies that other cable channels already played.
Then came 2007 and the premiere of Mad Men. Shortly after, the network's Breaking Bad premiered. Both have been met with critical and fan praise and have turned the network into a place for high-quality, well-done dramas. With several new programs being slated for the network, including a remake of The Prisoner, AMC looks to shift further in the near future.
A&E and Biography - Like many of the cable networks mentioned in this list, the A&E network (established in 1984) turned to reality programming and moved away from their original concepts. So, instead of shows like Biography, Caroline's Comedy Hour and repeats of Murder, She Wrote the network began airing reality programs like Dog The Bounty Hunter, Parking Wars and Gene Simmons Family Jewels. Because of A&E's channel shift its spin-off channel, The Biography Channel (now simply called 'bio.'), also encountered a shift. So, instead of focusing on Biography and other biographical shows the network took on the fictional programs its parent network previously ran.
Bravo - All I really need to say is 'See above' because the fate of Bravo went the same way as A&E, but maybe a bit slower. Originally focusing on the performing arts and featuring shows such as Inside the Actors Studio, Bravo began its shift to more reality programming after the network was acquired by NBC in 2002. Initially, the change was small with the introduction of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and repeats of NBC's The West Wing. As the years progressed more and more of the schedule was filled with reality-based game shows and general reality program. Now, save for the occasional episode of The West Wing and Actors Studio, the network schedule is full of reality programming.
CMT - Going the way of sister stations MTV and VHI, CMT (Country Music Television) has definitely encountered some major channel shift over the last few years. Originally a network that played country music videos 24 hours a day, CMT slowly moved away from that position as programming shifted to 'country lifestyle' reality programs like Trick my Truck and Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team and repeats of shows like The Dukes of Hazard. Lately, the network has shifted away from even those country-based programs with airings of Trading Spouses, Hogan Knows Best and, for some reason, Lethal Weapon.
TLC - Yes, The Learning Channel has encountered a major channel shift over the last few years. The only thing is that we never really saw when it took place. When Discovery took TLC over back in the early 90's the network was focused on the instructional and educational programming that it began with when it went on the air in the early 1970s as the Appalachian Community Service Network. By the time the network became a regular part of cable systems, though, it was already featuring a slate of reality-based programming. By the time the turn of the century came to pass the network was known for its design shows such as Trading Spaces.
Recently, the network has shifted once again. The do-it-yourself programs that were so important to the channel during the early 00s have given way to more personality-based reality programs such as Little People, Big World, John and Kate Plus 8, and My Shocking Story. In addition, the network has gone back to using 'The Learning Channel' in some of their promotions.
The Mother of all Channel Shifts
MTV - Once upon a time, boys and girls, MTV stood for Music Television -- a network that ran music videos 24 hours a day. It was a success with viewers, old and young, and changed the way a whole generated listened to popular music. Then, one day in 1985, corporate giant Viacom purchased the network. Thus began the shift of MTV. After introducing non-video shows like Remote Control the network turned towards reality with the ground-breaking hits The Real World and Road Rules. As the 80s melded into the 90s and beyond the network began to be known less for its music videos and more for its reality-based programs.
Today's generation of MTV viewers probably don't even know that the network was exclusively music videos unless mentioned by their, gasp, parents. The network's schedule these days is filled with original and syndicated reality fare such as The Hills, A Shot of Love With Tila Tequila and Paris Hilton's My New BFF. The only hint that the network once aired influential music videos is the annual MTV Music Video Awards and a few stand-alone music video programs. Even TRL is a relic of the past.
VHI - Kids, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, Video Hits One was a network for a different generation of music video lovers. Unlike its older sibling MTV, VH1 aired more jazz, R&B and lighter rock videos that catered to an older audience. By the mid-90s the network went through its first channel shift and changed its focus to videos and performers of the past rather than the present. Shows like Pop-Up Video and Behind the Music became huge hits for the network.
Once those shows reached the saturation point, VH1 encountered another channel shift -- one that would move it almost totally away from music and music videos. By the mid 2000s the network would be known for its pop culture programs like I Love the... and Celebreality programs like Rock of Love, Hogan Knows Best, and Breaking Bonaduce. Usually, these celebreality programs would, and still, feature celebrities whose stars have been dim for several years and would sometimes rejuvenate their careers. Whether this was a good or bad thing has yet to be determined.