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Channel Drift: Who Does It Well ... and Who Doesn't

by Joel Keller, posted Mar 19th 2011 10:00AM
'Breaking Bad'Three years ago, my very funny colleague Jay Black penned a TV101 essay about the phenomenon of "channel drift." That's when a cable channel drifts away from either its original format or it keeps drifting from format to format. Usually you see channel drift when a channel keeps its name (like AMC) but not the format that gave it its name (classic movies).

But just because a channel drifts from its original raison d'être doesn't mean that it's making a horrible mistake. There are so many cable channels out there, along with online, mobile, and other viewing options, that a cable channel needs to change to survive. But they also need to keep the brand that they've built up over the decades.

So experimentation and change are pretty much a part of what most cable channels do. But some are doing it better than others. Here's a list of cable channels that have done a good job breaking away from their old formats, and channels that are fumbling the ball. I'll also mention shows that have survived the various changes, and if they're helping or hurting the current format.


'Mad Men'AMC
Original format:
Classic Movies
Current format: Kick-ass original dramas

AMC, along with FX, is the standard-bearer when it comes to cable reinvention. For years, the network showed classic movies without commercials, mostly the black and white titles that had been disappearing from broadcast TV's late shows. In between movies, Nick Clooney (yes, George's dad), Bob Dorian and other hosts would give behind-the-scenes tidbits and trivia about the movie just shown and the movie coming up.

It was a sleepy channel, but great for classic movie buffs. The advent of Turner Movie Classics, who grabbed the MGM library for themselves, led AMC to eventually change to a general movie channel, and in 2007, it debuted 'Mad Men,' its first original drama (it had tried comedy and reality in past years to not much success). A few dozen Emmys later, AMC has become a breeding ground for high-quality drama, from 'Breaking Bad' to 'The Walking Dead' to worthwhile experiments like 'Rubicon.'

'Sons of Anarchy'FX
Original format:
Reruns, theatrical movies and silly studio shows
Current format: Edgy original dramas and comedies

When FX debuted in the mid-'90s, it was known as "fx," in lower-case. It mostly showed reruns, but also had live studio shows where the hosts interacted with the audience, mainly by phone -- this was in the days when only nerds like me used e-mail and Mark Zuckerberg and the guys who created Twitter were still in grammar school.

It took a while for FX to find its way, spending a couple of years airing mostly reruns and theatrical movies, until it debuted 'The Shield' in 2002. The raw Shawn Ryan cop drama was so successful that FX became a home for drama, and eventually comedy, that was edgy and pushed the boundaries of what can be shown and said on basic cable. 'The Shield' is gone, but in its wake, a solid lineup of veteran shows remain, including 'Nip/Tuck,' 'Justified,' 'Sons of Anarchy,' 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' and 'Louie.'

Andy CohenBravo
Original format:
Highbrow arts and entertainment fare
New format: Housewives, divas, and table flippers

Believe it or not, Bravo has been around since 1980, starting as a commercial-free channel that showed art house films, international titles, jazz concerts, and televised stage shows.

Thirty-one years and a number of owners later -- it's now owned by NBC Universal -- Bravo has transformed itself into a reality TV staple, starting with 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' in 2003. From there, Bravo's programming strategy has stayed remarkably consistent and cohesive, with reality phenomenons like 'Project Runway' (now on Lifetime), 'Flipping Out,' 'Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List,' 'Top Chef' and the 'Real Housewives' series attracting a strong viewership across the board (yes, straight men watch... don't let them tell you otherwise). It has such a strong identity that one of its executives, Andy Cohen, has become a star in his own right.

Hanging on for dear life: Somehow 'Inside the Actors Studio' has made the transition from Bravo's high art days to its current status as the top of the reality heap. While it doesn't fit in well with the channel's current slate, it's always fun to see James Lipton fawning over whatever recent star has decided to get a "grilling" from him.

'Sister Wives'TLC
Old format:
Educational programming
New format: Little people, Gosselins, polygamists and loud cake makers

People should stop complaining already that the programming on TLC doesn't adhere to the channel's initials, which originally stood for "The Learning Channel." Even TLC's executives acknowledge that the "learning" part of TLC disappeared many years ago.

What people don't realize is that TLC started drifting away from its initial educational programming way back in the '90s, with shows like 'HomeTime' and crime shows like 'The New Detectives.' But when they debuted 'Trading Spaces' and their "Life Unscripted" slogan a decade ago, there was no more learning to be had. The channel has morphed from even that not-so-lofty perch to give viewers looks into the lives of unusual families, via shows like 'Cake Boss,' 'Little People, Big World,' 'Sister Wives,' 'Jon & Kate Plus 8,' '19 Kids and Counting' and 'Sarah Palin's Alaska.'

Hanging on for dear life: TLC still has a page for 'Trading Spaces' on their website, but it's not currently airing. Paige Davis even came back to save the former hit, but it may have finally met its maker.


Old format:
The "A" part of the name: highbrow arts programming
New format: The "E" part: depressing reality shows and lame dramas

It doesn't matter that A&E isn't doing its PBS-style highbrow programming anymore; that ship sailed a long time ago. It's not even that it does a lot of reality programming now. It's just that the channel seems to be a hodgepodge, programming-wise, not really carrying any sort of identity.

Does it want to examine the searing lives of people who are in desperate straits, like they do in 'Hoarders' and 'Intervention?' Do they want to show people with unusual jobs, like they do in 'Storage Wars?' Do they want to be celebrity-driven, like with 'Gene Simmons Family Jewels?' Or do they want to be a USA-like channel with accessible dramas like 'The Glades?' It's not that the shows aren't successful; it's that if you weren't a fan of any of them, you'd probably guess that they're on any other network than A&E, and that's a problem.

Hanging on for dear life: 'Biography' is still hanging around, despite the presence of the spin-off Bio channel, mainly because it can change and morph to match A&E's style at the time. For instance? A new 'Biography' of the man with the golden voice, Ted Williams, was just announced. You'd never see the show doing that in the days when it was doing the life stories of Tom Hanks and Johnny Carson.

Guy FieriFood Network
Old format:
Chefs with personality
New format: Personalities with cooking skills

Don't get me wrong; I enjoy watching Guy Fieri talk about the "spicy train to Flavortown" as restaurant owners make vats of food on 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.' And there's something about '5 Ingredient Fix' host Claire Robinson that makes me want to crack open a beer with her while watching a football game. But at some point, the Food Network decided to ditch most of the chefs who made the channel a household name and go with personalities who know how to cook.

Remember how obsessed you were with 'Emeril Live?' Those days are long gone. Once the network foisted Rachael Ray, whose meals weren't gourmet, but tasty and relatively easy to follow, on an unsuspecting public, the chefs were more or less history. Even the cooking shows you see in the mornings are now more personality driven than chef driven. No more Mario Batali showing us how to make fantastic Italian meals. Now it's Sandra Lee and her canned goods, Ray and her '30 Minute Meals' that really take 45, Paula Deen and her butter, the stoners on 'Ace of Cakes' and the one and only season of whoever won the previous year's 'Next Food Network Star.' They even gave Brian Boitano a cooking show, for heaven's sake.

Hanging on for dear life: 'Good Eats,' mainly because Alton Brown cannot be stopped. Also, the show is pretty damned entertaining. Bobby Flay seems to be the only true chef who still has a prominent place on the network (Tyler Florence is still around, but his profile isn't nearly as high), and if he didn't come up with 'Throwdown,' he might have disappeared, too.

Dr. DrewVH1
Old format:
Music videos for "old fogies" (i.e. over 25)
New format: I don't know... check with me next week

VH1 has had more formats than Joan Rivers has had Botox injections. First it was music videos, then it was pop culture skewering with shows like 'Pop-up Video.' Then it was wall-to-wall 'Behind the Music' documentaries. That gave way to talking-head shows like 'I Love the '80s' and 'Best Week Ever.' Next came "Celebreality" with shows like 'Celebrity Fit Club' and 'The Surreal Life.' Next was celebrity romance competition shows like 'Flavor of Love,' 'Rock of Love' and 'Tool Academy.' Now, the network is trying to get "real" with shows like 'Celebrity Rehab,' 'You're Cut Off!' and 'Tough Love.'

The formats have overlapped, but it does seem like VH1 reinvents itself every 18 months or so, doesn't it? It gets to the point where you won't be surprised to turn on VH1 some day and see Dustin Diamond as a Catholic priest.


'Jersey Shore'MTV
Old format:
Music videos by everyone from Duran Duran to Eminem.
New format: Whatever the kids are into these days

Let's face facts: If you're 30 and over, MTV is not programmed for you. MTV was there for you when you were between the ages of 11-29, in no matter what era you were that young. You either got into the Michael Jackson videos, stayed up late to watch 'Headbanger's Ball' or '120 Minutes,' watched your favorite band go 'Unplugged,' followed the seven strangers forced to live together on 'The Real World,' or watched Carson Daly talk over screaming teenagers on 'TRL.'

And, even though it's no longer "Music Television," the channel is still there for the tween-to-twenties set. There's no denying that their reality programming -- 'Jersey Shore,' 'Teen Mom,' 'Real Life' and '16 and Pregnant' -- have resonated with more people than some of their previous "reality" fare like 'The Hills,' which seemed to have a much more narrow audience. But MTV is still feeling their way in the scripted world, with 'Skins' being a critical and ratings failure and 'The Hard Times of RJ Berger' barely making a blip on the pop culture radar.

But, then again, I'm way too old to judge whether MTV is doing a good job or not. And I've been way too old for over a decade now.

Hanging on for dear life: The 'MTV Video Music Awards.' Why give awards for videos you never show?

Tell us: Which cable channels have done a good job reinventing themselves? Which ones have been a disaster?

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Sir Walter Dibs

As a 21 year old I feel like I'm the only one who hates MTV. My 28 year old cousin tried having a conversation about the latest goings on of Snooki her gang of talentless nobodies and I was ashamed to even say I was related to him.

March 27 2011 at 10:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sci-Fi and HISTORY are the two worst, though Bravo, TLC, A&E and MTV are also pretty horrible.

Seriously, how is "American Choppers" even remotely related to history?
There used to be new episodes of shows like "Digging for the Truth", "History's Mysteries", and many new specials about various historical events. Now it's just reality shows. I do like "American Pickers", but it should be on a different channel.

March 22 2011 at 2:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Clearly the worst is Bravo and SyFy, guess what??? The same person is in charge of both.

March 20 2011 at 8:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lane Wright

I completely disagree about fx/FX and Bravo. Both went from networks that I would watch regularly to networks I never watch any more. The "silly studio shows" on fx were more entertaining than anything they broadcast today (and "Breakfast Time" is still the best morning show that has ever been on American television) and nothing like anything else you could find on cable, then and now. If they had kept that kind of daytime programming and then put on the edgier programming at night, it would be a far superior network to what it is today. And Bravo's cultural programming was much preferable to the reality programming dreck that is now their bread and butter. Far from changing their formats well, I'd put them squarely in the "getting it wrong" category.

March 19 2011 at 6:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I would switch out the Food Network for Sy FY, At least all the show on Food network are about FOOD as opposed to wrestling and other non science fiction projects.

March 19 2011 at 12:43 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

How about g4? First it was all videogames, then it swallowed up Tech TV and got to be about all computer stuff, and now lately X-Play is hanging on for dear life, Attack of the Show is more like a morning radio show, and the rest of it seems to be COPS-type shows

March 19 2011 at 12:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to TraV333Kay's comment

Definitely this. G4 is probably the poster child for channel drift abuse. Time Warner, which groups channels in this area by theme, slides G4 into a channel in the sports and competition genre for no explicable reason. My guess is that they couldn't quite tell what the channel was all about anymore, and just tossed it there for lack of a genre called "huh?"

I disagree with the article's criticism of Food Network. While the specifics have changed, they remain very consistent with the concept of "television for or about foodies." Additionally, the network has been very personality-driven since they launched, with people like Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Mario Batali, among others. Yes, they were chefs, but they were still very distinct TV personalities.

March 19 2011 at 11:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
General Kenobi

Agreed with the previous two commentors, Syfy is one of the more egregious examples of channel drift, and not for the better.

March 19 2011 at 12:10 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

the History Channel-it used to be the place to go for documentaries about....Historical events. I admit at first the entire channel seemed to be the "Nazi Channel", because it seemed like World War II the European front was the only thing that had ever happened. But then they expanded their documentaries and it got good. Now its all reality shows like AX men, or American Pickers, or Pawn Stars. I don't think it fits with a channel about "History" to only show people cutting down trees (which is sad), haggling with people over the trash in their attic (which is just silly) or people trying to pawn their lives (which is just sordid). History? not really!

March 19 2011 at 11:52 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Crystal's comment

I agree wholeheartedly. These days I watch the Military Channel more often than History. I seriously miss things like "Bloody Ole England Week" and other, good documentaries. Thankfully some of these are still aired on History International.

The same goes for A&E. Once upon a time, they aired the best miniseries there were. I could spend weekends watching A&E when I was in high school and college, enjoying "America's Castles," "The Grand Tour," and such. I would STILL love to see those shows.

The sad truth is that "reality" shows are cheap to produce and people watch them because there is nothing better on TV. Personally I turn off the tv rather than watch a reality show.

March 19 2011 at 12:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

When I was in my 20s, I watched MTV. I don't even know what station it is now. You hit that one on the head.

March 19 2011 at 11:10 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Nelson Fernandez

what about SyFy flirting with wrestling?

March 19 2011 at 10:20 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Nelson Fernandez's comment
Steve O.

Never mind that, what about SyFy canceling legitimate, good science-fiction shows before they'd even had a chance to grow?

March 19 2011 at 11:02 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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