The PopCulteer
February 4, 2011

Recently I wrote about how IFC, the Independent Film Channel,  changed their focus. They’re dumping most of their cutting-edge indie films, adding tons of comedy shows and, worst of all, they are inserting commercials into their movies and TV shows, disrupting the flow and heading 180 degrees away from what seemed to be their core mission: bringing independent film into the homes of the average American.

Of course, the main reason for this is so they can make more money. In the short term, they’ll run off all their loyal fans, but in the long run, it may wind up with IFC becoming a much more profitable entity.

This is sort of the norm for cable channels. They start out great, serving a niche audience and building a great word-of-mouth reputation. Then, once they’ve established themselves and gotten on a lot of cable systems, they change course, aim for the lowest common denominator, and go for the big advertising money.

After alienating their core audience, they go for mainstream success with new programming.

Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. One of the drawbacks of having hundreds of cable channels to chose from is that most of them only have one show worth watching, if that.

IFC’s sister channel, AMC, completely abandoned their core principles many years ago. Instead of showcasing uncut, uninterrupted classic American Movies, they started editing movies, inserting commercials, and programming crappy movies instead of “Classics” as their pre-anacronym name implied. They floundered until they started producing original programming like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Walking Dead.” Now they’re a cable channel with one strong night of programming a week, and a name that is just letters that don’t stand for anything.

Strangely enough, most of the AMC series contain the kind of sex and violence that the former “American Movie Classics” now hacks out of the movies they show. Still, they’ve been very successful, and since we still have Turner Classic Movies, they didn’t leave a complete void.

IFC is already off to a good start with “The Onion News Network” and “Portlandia.” It looks like they’re going to try to eat into Comedy Central’s audience, instead of going the (more expensive) route of scripted drama series.Viewers should have been tipped off when IFC started showing The Three Stooges.  That’s great stuff, but it’s hardly independent film.

Their reruns are of high-quality programs like “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Mr. Show,” but the commercial breaks inserted into these HBO-originated shows destroy the flow and basically reduce them to commercials for the DVD boxed sets of those series. I have a feeling that IFC does have a winning formula, though.

It still sucks that they’ve rendered their movies unwatchable with their lengthy commercial breaks. Censorship is inevitable. IFC will eventually water down the more extreme aspects of their movies and programs as they try to attract advertisers.

At least we still have The Sundance Channel (another sister channel of IFC) to bring us uncut art house films. Sadly, it’s starting to look like they might be changing direction soon too. Lately it seems half their schedule is comprised of reruns of the old HBO series, “The Comeback” and episodes of some reality show about women with gay male friends.

Since the beginning of cable TV there have been channels that suddenly switch course and change their identity. TBS started out as a “super station” retransmission of Atlanta’s WTCG. Over the years they mutated into a general entertainment channel with a focus on comedy and sports. Recently they’ve taken aim at late night with George Lopez and Conan O’Brien. This is a far cry from the days when they showed Lil’ Rascals and a hilarious low-budget local news show, hosted by Bill Tush.

Thirty years ago, USA Network, BET and a channel that was acquired by Nickelodeon all shared a single satellite transponder, airing at different parts of the day. USA back then consisted of NBA basketball, Night Flight (a major inspiration for Radio Free Charleston) and one hour of kid’s programming. BET was primarily a gospel music channel, airing hours and hours of “Bobby Jones Gospel.”

Nickelodeon was freshly renamed after starting life as “Pinwheel” and only aired for half a day. They shared a channel with A&E, which strangely enough, was NOT owned by the same company.

In the ensuing decades, USA ditched team sports and became the highest-rated general entertainment channel on cable. BET became the channel they are today, and just recently scored a major hit with their series, “The Game,” a former CW show quadrupled its ratings by moving to BET.

After moving off the shared channel with A&E (which, at the time, aired uncut art films and classical music programs, among other highbrow programming) Nick then expanded into a full 24-hour network. Nickelodeon introduced “Nick at Night,” which was reruns of classic sitcoms, and then spun that off into a sister channel, “TV Land.”

When A&E tried to go mainstream, they started Bravo, a high-class cultural channel, to serve the audience that A&E abandoned. Of course Bravo is now a wasteland of trashy reality programs and heavily-edited Hollywood movies.

As you can see, even back in the 80s cable channels would change their focus to reposition themselves to be more profitable.The History Channel recently discarded a mini-series based on The Kennedys, presumably because there were no semi-trucks driving on ice roads or dysfunctional families running pawn shops in it.

Then there’s the way MTV degenerated over the years. What was once the aptly-named “Music Television,” MTV invented the most horrible type of reality show with “The Real World,” and the channel has been barely watchable since. VH1 went down the same toilet.

It got so bad that when MTV launched digital channels that returned to their roots, with MTVX and VH1 Classic, they eventually ruined those channels the same way. It became an exercise in increasing market share simply by flooding cable channels with lesser clones of their main channels.

One of the most drastic changes in cable came when The Nashville Network, a down-home channel featuring country and gospel music, was sold to Viacom, the first thing they did was to add ECW hardcore wrestling. Then they dumped ECW, outbid USA for WWE and re-branded the channel as “Spike TV,” jettisoning all traces of country music from their schedule and making a play for the young men’s demographic. They did okay until WWE returned to USA, taking their monster ratings with them. Spike is now struggling to find an audience.

When The Science Fiction Channel launched, nobody would have guessed that it’d become the home of professional wrestling and reality shows about the paranormal.  Nobody would have guessed that they’d changed the name to “SyFy” euther, but then people are still scratching their head over that.

Lately some of the Discovery Channels have found profitability in abandoning their core programming focus. TLC, which once was “The Learning Channel” is now host to an embarrassing array of exploitative reality programming. “Discovery Kids” was relaunched as “The Hub,” a joint venture with Hasbro, which has quickly become a favorite with their mix of fresh kids programming and family-oriented nostalgic re-runs like “Happy Days” and the original “Batman.”

Discovery joined up with another partner, Oprah Winfrey, to change “Discovery Health,” a channel seemingly devoted to programs about conjoined twins, into “The Oprah Winfrey Network.” The jury is still out on whether or not that switch is going to work, but conventional wisdom is that it will be a money-maker.

It’s only a matter of time before more of the best cable channels feel the pressure to become more profitable. The Sundance Channel already looks to be in a precarious state. Cartoon Network has ceded nine hours a day to Adult Swim, and they’ve added a slate of unwatchable live-action shows. Boomerang is still commercial-free, but many of their classic cartoons have been displaced by newer offerings, and even one of those awful live-action Cartoon Network game shows.

Palladia, an MTV-owned Hi-Def channel, is doomed. It’s only a matter of time before the taint of reality TV forces their terrific line-up of concerts and rock music movies off the schedule. Enjoy it while you can.

HDNet is an interesting experiment in programming. They have a different format almost every night. They show everything from Mixed Martial Arts to serious journalism from Dan Rather to theatrical movies to sleazy “laddie” programming like the uncut Girls Gone Wild. There’s no way they can last with that interesting a schedule. Again, enjoy it while you can.

By the time these channels get ruined, something new will pop up. It might be a new channel like ePix, or it might be a case of one of the old channels striking gold with a new series. Regardless we can be sure of two things: First, no matter how many cable channels we have, there will always be exactly the same amount of quality programs on the air at any given time. Second: cable rates will continue to rise.

It’s all perfectly normal.