Cable TV Programmers Make Bait-and-Switch a High Art

Categories: Pop Culture

Drunken yoga does not equal female empowerment.

Show of hands: Who remembers when cable TV's A&E channel featured real art for entertainment? Been a long time, right?

Back in the 1990s, the Arts & Entertainment channel, as it was known then, specialized in high-culture programming. Ballet. Opera. Plays. Long interviews with performers and visual artists. There was a quiet Sunday morning show that profiled classical musicians like YoYo Ma, with live performances each week. The best-known series was the nightly Biography with its serious hour-long documentaries on notables from the arts, sciences, history and literature.

Now the owner of a 10-channel group on cable, including Lifetime, History and The Biography Channel, the abbreviated A&E is where you can catch lowbrow fare such as Storage Wars, a show about the auctions of abandoned storage units. It carries hour after hour of Dog the Bounty Hunter, Hoarders and Intervention. The only artistry you see might be the expert real estate flippers of House Flip, or some of the more poetic felons on the prison reality show Beyond Scared Straight.

A&E is an example of an old canard called "Gresham's Law," which says that bad money (literally coins made of cheaper metal) will always drive the good (made of precious metals) out of circulation. Same thing happens time and again on cable television. Bad programming almost always pushes out good.

Seeking higher ratings and revenues, channels that were launched with high-flown ideas about quality gradually chip away at their own standards. And one day their schedule is nothing but marathons of America's Next Top Model and Snapped.

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That's what happened at Oxygen, the "channel for women" that started out in 1999 with a lot of hot air about how its shows and internet components were designed to "empower" ladies. Investors in Oxygen's start-up included Oprah Winfrey, computer titan Paul Allen and Cosby Show producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner. Brought in to run Oxygen was Geraldine Laybourne, one of the founding producers of Nickelodeon and a former big cheese at Disney.

Oxygen's biggest competition for cable viewers at the time was Lifetime, another channel designed for maximum girl-appeal. Laybourne told Charlie Rose in 1999 that women were the biggest buyers of cable TV services but were underserved by its programming. "They're feeling sold at and pushed at," Laybourne said on Rose's interview show back then.

Oxygen would remedy that, Laybourne promised. She gave Oprah an hour a day for the "After-Show," trying to lure the talk queen's female audience up the cable dial for more chit-chat after her daily talk show ended. Didn't work. The whole empowerment thing went kaput when the first couple of rounds of original programming failed ratings-wise. The Janice Dickenson Modeling Agency and Bad Girls, a sort of "Big Brother meets Real World with more sluts," put Oxygen in the game - reality shows that turned up the volume on bitchy behavior and tantrum-throwing by its female stars. Young women watched. Advertisers bought. That was good enough for NBCUniversal, which purchased Oxygen four years ago for more than $900 million. Gresham's Law in action.

Tonight on Oxygen you'll see Tori Spelling's reality show, infomercials for the "Brazil Butt Lift," and many, many hours of Snapped, a reality crime series about women who kill their spouses. Now that's empowering.

Speaking of Lifetime, once the home of soft-focus made-for-TV movies based on romance novels, things have turned nasty there, too. Going for the same young female cable-TV viewer loyal to MTV's Jersey Shore and Teen Mom, Lifetime now carries back-to-back episodes of Monster-in-Law (reality show about mothers-in-law who don't like the girls their sons married), Wife Swap (did you see the one with Gary Busey swapping with Ted Haggard?) and Dance Moms (twirling tots screamed at by an overweight harridan named Miss Abby).

A few of us remember when Bravo began as a channel celebrating performing arts. Like A&E, it carried full performances of operas, ballets and plays and ran documentaries and artsy foreign films. It was home to James Lipton's Inside the Actors Studio, featuring long, in-depth interviews with serious actors and directors.

Then Andy Cohen was promoted to chief programmer at Bravo a few years ago. Away went the arts (and goodbye to the Actors Studio) and in came flocks of competitive chefs and Real Housewives. Ratings soared. (Though in cable, that's still only an audience of several million, well below what's considered a ratings bonanza on a broadcast network like CBS or ABC.)

Thanks to Mr. Cohen, we are now on a first-name basis with rich, horrible gals like NeNe, Camille, Taylor, Gretchen and Ramona. And Andy, expert at the art of self-promo, has his own live nightly talk show on Bravo.

There is a series called Work of Art: The Next Great Artist on Bravo. It's a reality/competition thing pitting young, attractive painters and sculptors against each other to win money and a solo show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In every episode, one of the girl artists gets naked and somebody cries. It has about as much to do with making art as Real Housewives has to do with keeping house.

Discovery channel used to have shows about science. Now it's American Chopper and Sons of Guns. While women cable viewers are tuned to Real Housewives, their men presumably are in another room watching cowboys and engines on Discovery.

Style Channel has shifted its initial focus from the fashion industry to massive blocks of time devoted to Supernanny and Sex & the City reruns (girls, those outfits are looking dated and weird by now). Tonight there are several hours of the reality show Giuliana & Bill, plus a documentary called Sperm Donor: 74 Kids and More. (Ooh, the Duggars are going to be jealous.)

E! Entertainment dropped the "Entertainment" and its dedication to going behind-the-scenes of the TV and movie biz a few years back. It's all Kardashians almost all the time on E! these days, with spin-offs of spin-offs of the reality shows about Hollywood's least talented, most self-exploited family.

If you're as old as cable TV is, you remember when MTV and VH1 were about music, not just marketing platforms for Snookie and her fame-seeking pals, or a window into the DTs of the raving lunatics on Celebrity Rehab.

OWN, Oprah's new channel, is still struggling to find its center and its audience, with no buzz about anything so far. O-pal Gayle King's live daily show was a bust (she's now co-hosting CBS' dreadful Early Show with a sleepy-eyed Charlie Rose) and so was much of the first round of original shows. Now OWN will depend on Oprah's Lifeclass and Oprah's Next Chapter to draw in Oprah brand-loyalists. Already most of the daytime and primetime schedule of OWN is taken up by the drecky Mystery Diagnosis and My Strange Addiction, looking at sickies who eat couch cushions or dress in furry costumes for kicks. Rosie O'Donnell has a new talk show on OWN but is anybody watching? When is it on?

Maybe the most egregious shift in programming strategy has been on TLC, formerly known as The Learning Channel. It was a rival to PBS at first as a cable network that said educating viewers about things like science and history was its goal. Now you stop there to wince at shows like I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant or Toddlers & Tiaras. There are entire days on TLC with back-to-back shows about nothing but cakes and cupcakes. They should add one more letter and make it TLCD, for The Lowest Common Denominator.

One of the last places to catch the occasional glimpse of something worthwhile or that doesn't have a chef or toddler or a Kardashian on it on cable is the Ovation channel, located in the nosebleed section of most cable lineups. It's where you can see the brilliant Canadian comedy series Slings & Arrows, about a troupe of Shakespearean actors (including a young Rachel McAdams). And it still runs docu-series about art, architecture and photography. But lately they've been padding the schedule with reruns of the old show Fame and too many airings of the movies The Wiz and Nine to Five.

In cable television, Gresham's Law rules.

Video clip: Slings & Arrows: Hamlet

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Theres always going to be high lows in production and quality. If it stayed the same for decades it would be boring

Jerome Weeks
Jerome Weeks

Another old grump piling on here (doing my best coot impression): Then there's the History Channel which is now just 'H' (for 'Hell,' I believe, or maybe 'Watch Only While High') and which actually had some interesting programs once before it went to All Blitzkrieg All the Time (Homer Simpson watching German bombers on TV, 'Ah, the Luftwaffe. The Washington Generals of the History Channel.') Then came the narrow-cast military history channels, biting off that market, so 'H' is only remotely connected with something known as facts or the past. 

A number of years ago, Biography, which, as you noted, spun off A&E into its own halfway decent channel, decided -- officially, publicly -- that it would not profile anyone born before Ronald Reagan was president. I can remember actually being pleasantly surprised at a decent Bio treatment of F. Scott Fitzgerald and another on Sulieman the Magnificent. Now the line in the sand seems to be No One Before (and None More Intelligent than) Rob Schneider.

And we won't get started on how NatGeo has pretty much abandoned anything the magazine might have done, long ago.

To rub salt in our cable-weary eyes is the argument repeatedly and vigorously advanced by opponents of government funding for PBS: There's no need for the network now that cable is here. This ignores the fact that there's still a sizable percentage of people without cable and certainly without premium cable. And of course, it ignores the reality of cable. I recently set up a personal challenge to find a recent, serious, science or historical documentary program on cable somewhat on par with NOVA or American Experience. I am not counting any fear-mongering quack-medical program, exercise drill or You can spend hours scrolling through your cable system's network guide, doing a quick check of the occasional unfamiliar show, without finding anything beyond Law & Order and NCIS re-runs, hopelessly hokey para-psychology 'reports' or mutant reality TV shows. Thank God for BBC America when it comes to dramas, Colbert and Stewart and -- I hate to credit Murdoch with anything good in the world -- FX for 'Justified.'

Although, ultimately, the effect of this follows Gresham's Law -- as you correctly point out -- the motivating corporate force is this: Having made a niche beachhead in the vast cable territory with the arts, with at least moderately serious docs, with some vague recognition of life outside of Kardashian kulture, all of these channels abandon any commitment to their original programming to compete for the same big, fat, brain-dead market share: the bored 50-year-old female audience or the idiot teen male audience, the ones who apparently have had their computers and smartphones and tablets taken away. It seems a sliver of that market is preferable to all the well-off, marginally educated folks who originally tuned in to these channels.

Cable was supposed to the great alternative to network broadcasting. Satellite was supposed to be the great alternative to cable. Now -- with the exception of the premium dramas on HBO and Showtime -- they both seem determined to make network TV look good.

Screw it. I'm going online to watch 'Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog' for the third time.

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