Things I Don’t Like About Television, Episode 1: Network Decay

To borrow a term from TVTropes, Network Decay is what happens when a network moves from its primary objective. A cable network can be created and be dedicated to one type of programming but then move from that premise — and the intended core demographic — over time.

This can happen for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Ratings
  • The era or necessity.
  • Competition, particularly with streaming services.
  • The absolute hubris of executives.

Ratings Can Dictate What Networks Show

Of course, networks always consider ratings, particularly for irregular programs that might have been featured from time to time. Perhaps a cable network dedicated to finances shows a sporting event one year. What if the network then shows five more the following year and it is determined that those sporting events garnered far more viewers than the regular programming? While there might be a complete shift in the network’s approach in the future, less time may be given to the regular programming. Given more time and more success with the sporting events, the channel might be completely unrecognizable.

The Learning Channel (TLC) has of course been taken over by reality programming. It was once a channel devoted to health issues. but With shows like “John and Kate Plus 8,” “19 Kids and Counting,” and “Honey Boo Boo” — the latter two having been canceled due to some participants being bloody child molesters — it has devolved into the channel for unhealthy behavior for stage moms and other questionable individuals.

Network Decay Could Happen Out of Necessity

Sometimes, the era dictates what channels may show. This is of course tied to ratings, but those can be determined by how receptive audiences are to certain programming. If competition shows are more popular at one point and the audience has lost interest in what a network normally shows, they may be a shift in programming.

Court TV went from showing informational programming surrounding the US legal system to showing amateur camera footage of men rescuing cats from trees (as TruTV). Admittedly, I have not really watched the channel in ages, but…it does currently have a program I like for the most part (“Adam Ruins Everything”). Incidentally, that program started as a series of shorts from College Humor’s YouTube channel.

I would say what happened to TNN was a mixture of ratings and the era, as well as an overall lack of identity. It was originally The Nashville Network and it was dedicated to programming that involved the Country music industry. Then, one day, it became “The National Network”, as it began showing films like “Showgirls.” Today, it is known as Spike TV, which has itself deviated from its original purpose of attracting young adult males.

Executive Hubris Can Lead to Lineup Changes

Look to Cartoon Network for an example of. When Cartoon Network was launched, it featured original programs like “Dexter’s Laboratory”, “The Powerpuff Girls”, and “Johnny Bravo”. It also featured old favorites like “The Jetsons.” Adult Swim was built mostly on classic anime, channel runoffs, and quirky original programming. However, many of those favorites were removed from both lineups. In 2010-2011, things took a turn for the worse. Some genius decided to launch CN Real, and that involved a bunch of poorly conceived, poorly acted, and vapid shows featuring real-life teenagers. There was, of course, a backlash, and that caused CN to scale back that programming and to bring back some of the cartoons it took out of its lineup.

G4 is perhaps the saddest case of network decay. In 2002, Comcast acquired TechTV, which featured shows about gaming and computers. The channel was then re-launched as G4 and it was originally geared toward game enthusiasts from the MTV generation. Some holdovers from the acquisition were “Cheats!” — which became a segment on “X-Play” — and Adam Sessler. Ultimately, the channel was overrun by episodes of “Cops” and “Cheaters.” In the end, although there was a desire to reach a demographic, there was no clear direction in which the channel was headed.

Networks Have to Compete with Online Sources

When I think of network decay…The first thing that comes to my mind is MTV and VH1. Both networks were eventually taken over by reality programming, since those shows were popular. Both of these networks were eventually given offshoots (in order to show more videos), but even MTV2 and MTV3 began to be overrun by reality programming.

These networks are examples of three of the four above factors I mentioned, but online competition is one underrated factor. Nowadays, we can find various sources of entertainment at the click of a button. People may watch Hulu to catch up on favorite TV shows or for original programming. Anyone with a subscription can watch Netflix to see the movies offered at the time. But it doesn’t stop there. There’s an argument to be made that more and more people have access to music videos online, as has been made in this video from a few years ago:

We can find music online, and it started with Napster. Companies eventually found ways to contend with the spread of music online and there are plenty of legal ways for people to listen to and share music on the Internet.

Given those valid (if snarky) reasons, there is still little excuse for MTV to move as far away from music as it has. Besides music videos, MTV also showed footage from concerts and behind-the-scenes looks at concert preparations and the creation of music videos. There were also great interviews with artists and MTV VJ’s from time to time.

As you can see from these examples, many channels that do this have good enough programs to appeal to their original demographics — or gain wide appeal across different age groups. However, you can see by doing some independent research how executives tend to meddle with their own programming. As a result, the shows suffer and thus the current audiences will eventually be alienated from the channels.

In a later post, I would like to go further into executive meddling and discuss how damaging it is. Next though, I will talk about why I hate reality TV.


Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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