I was always a big fan of specialized niche TV networks. I always thought that having a network with a clearly defined profile and focus was a win for us TV viewers. If I was in the mood for some Science Fiction I could just tune into the Sci-Fi Channel and chances were that some SF show or movie would be on. If I wanted to watch a historical documentary, I would flip over to the History Channel. If I wanted a lick of science, I would put it on Discovery. If I wanted a nature show, I had the Animal Planet. If I wanted to rock out to some music videos there was MTV and VH1.
I’m speaking in the past tense of course, because this sort of programming focus seems to be a thing of the past. MTV doesn’t show music anymore. Discovery has hardly any science shows. History has hardly any historical documentaries these days. Everyone is airing reality shows instead. And no wonder – these things are like crack: they are cheap to make, and give you a supprisingly huge return on investment ratings wise.
In fact, a lot of these niche stations are re-branding themselves these days to justify the sudden switch of focus. The first network to do this was Court TV which changed it’s name to TruTV so that no one could complain that all they show is reality crap. But I didn’t care, because I didn’t really watch that station. I merely thought it was amusing. In retrospect, I can actually see that it might have been an early indication of a new trend.
Very recently the Scifi Channel changed their name to SyFy for the very same reason. They wanted to distance themselves from their traditional focus, to be able to air more reality shows and non SF reated garbage.
Now there is a rumor going around that Cartoon Network might be heading in the same direction. Yeah, apparently the live action reality shows they started airing recently are not getting good ratings so they are considering re-branding the station. Of course the rumor is unconfirmed, but it does sound real enough.
It does seem like this is a trend. Back in the day we saw the TV networks diversify each one trying to carve out a niche for itself. Now we are seeing the opposite effect. The TV network universe reached it’s maximum point of expansion and now started contracting, as everyone wants to get a piece of the big pie. Reality shows are the goose that lays golden eggs – they appeal to just about everyone (except you and me of course) and can be made without any resources or capital investment. You just send a camera crew or two to follow some duchebags around, and then spend few hours in the editing room to piece an episode together. It’s brilliant in it’s simplicity.
If this trend picks up, most stations will end up airing the same type of shitty pulp reality garbage. This makes me sad, because the niche networks created opportunities. For example Farscape would have never been made if Scifi Channel didn’t exist. The creators of that show pitched it to all kinds of networks, but no one wanted to take the risk of producing “muppets in space”. Scifi signed them on and gave the show 4 long seasons and a miniseries. Compare this to what Fox did to Firefly – another brilliant Science Fiction show which got aired out of order, changed the time slots few weeks after the premiere and then got canceled before the end of the first season. I suspect that if Joss Whedon pitched it to Scifi and if the price was right we would have seen at least a full season – if not two or three. I mean, look at Battlestar Galactica – it did marvelously well on a niche station. One has to wonder if it would have lasted even a single season on a network such as Fox. Or on a station named SyFy for that matter.
I guess the problem is that cable stations are obsessed with ratings. The initial divergence was supposed to help amortize the ratings risk. The niche channels had audiences with known tastes – if you catered to them, you would get considerably high ratings in your niche group. Reality TV changed the game – now you can produce a show that is almost guaranteed to draw mainstream viewers to your network at almost no cost. All of a sudden creating imaginative stories such as Farscape, Firefly or Battlestar Galactica is a huge financial risk. Why settle for the niche ratings if you can get a piece of the mainstream ones.
Reality TV will destroy the cable TV as we know it. It will stomp out all the shows that we love and replace them with generic, unimaginative garbage.
There is a small glimmer of hope though. Perhaps someone will get the idea to create premium networks for niche audiences. You know, like HBO or Showtime – but for SF lovers, History buffs and etc. Would you subscribe to such a network? I probably wood, if they could guarantee that there would be no reality shit on it.
Then again, why would they do such a thing, if they could easily create 5 premium networks with exclusive reality TV for fraction of the price.