It’s hard to overestimate the influence that niche networks have had on us in recent decades. Thinking back to when cable TV was in its infancy and the concept was still pretty new, one might recall thinking, “How could you fill x number of hours of programming a day with _________?” (Remember — not all networks were 24 hours a day back then. That’s right, kids — television used to sign off at night!) But somewhere out there, someone had the idea to take a boatload of existing programming content, run it on the air and see what sort of an audience it might attract. With minimal overhead production costs, a little bit of smarts and some luck, a network might be born, a brand developed, an empire built.
And that’s how the world got its MTV. And its History. And A&E. And loads of other household-name networks with which many of us grew up. What has changed, though, is that a lot of those niche networks somehow don’t look the way they used to. To some extent, that’s to be expected — age brings change, and particularly in the world of television, where things like licensing rights, ratings and the constantly shifting, mercurial tastes of the public govern, change is often not just inseparable from growth, but equivalent to it.
But is there a point at which growth equates to brand dilution? When does a network grow so far away from its original concept that it loses its identity? And, perhaps most importantly, does it necessarily matter? MTV is still the model for success in this department. In the early ’80s, it began as essentially a repository for two decades’ worth of stockpiled promotional clips used in the music industry rarely seen by the general public. Three decades later, the music that put the “M” in “MTV” is largely absent, in favor of youth-lifestyle and reality programming intended to irk parents, spark controversy and pull in the ratings, which it does. Its brand has hardly suffered for diverting from its original mission — likely because, in part, the generation to which MTV originally mattered grew up and moved on, and because MTV developed VH1 in timely fashion to keep the music end of its business going.
Unfortunately, few other networks’ identities have weathered evolution from their original missions with the same elasticity. For the networks and their investors, it probably doesn’t matter so much. The brands are established, they’re growing and producing ratings by finding new audiences and new markets for themselves. That’s business. But from the perspective of the brand-loyal consumer, they’re bound to disappoint. Let’s take a look at some of the more brilliantly conceived niche outlets and how they’ve changed before our eyes:
Then: Remember when it featured Remember WENN? American Movie Classics, AMC stood for back then. Back then, the Golden Age of Hollywood never came to an end. Faces like Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, William Holden and Greta Garbo traipsed across the screen in an endless parade, a monument to a dead era, with the films forever introduced by film expert Bob Dorian and the network’s image one of soft focus and Deco graphics waxing inexorable “those were the days” nostalgia. Regardless of the trappings, the movies were often great, and presented in their entirety without commercial interruption. But it had its flaws: By its very name, it limited itself to American cinema. And with the advance of TCM and Turner’s acquisition of significant tracts of American movie history, TCM emerged as the premier broadcast curator of Hollywood’s past.
Now: AMC still has its hand in movies, though designating some of them as “classics” would be laughable, and the commercial breaks are a frequent source of complaint, not to mention the editing for content that goes on. All the same, these days the rebranded AMC is glowing with its new strength based on original series like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and others. (Now if they’d only bring back Rubicon …)
Then: Once upon a time, A&E stood for “Arts & Entertainment.” In those days it was something of a haven for those looking to escape the MTV culture that was making waves across the channel spectrum — almost like a consistently available injection of Masterpiece Theater whenever needed. With grand period pieces like Horatio Hornblower and The Scarlet Pimpernel, ambitious but lesser-seen films and other higher-culture events, A&E established an audience, a reputation and still managed to keep things from being too dreary and stuffy. Its signature series, A&E: Biography, profiling historic figures past and present, fascinated well enough to become its own brand and network, promising compelling insight into the people who shaped our world.
Now: Parking Wars. Storage Wars. The “A” part of A&E’s initiative has long since been ditched, and the “E” portion is arguably questionable, particularly for the core audience the network originally courted. Regardless, A&E’s ratings vastly improved when they become a stockhouse for reruns of The Sopranos and CSI: Miami, as well as for reality shows like Criss Angel Mindfreak, Intervention and Relapse. There are original, scripted series, but it’s hard to compare Breakout Kings with the classier, well-produced original movies and miniseries that the network used to debut. As for Biography, it eventually was abbreviated to the three-letter-acronymed BIO, steering clear of the lives of folks like Benjamin Franklin and Virginia Woolf and introducing us to the likes of Weird Al Yankovic and Dana Plato.
The History Channel
Then: Launched in 1995 as a more permanent home for the popular quality historical documentaries offered by parent network A&E, the network was a godsend for armchair history buffs and history teachers looking for programs to fill class time. Its preoccupation with World War II led some to jokingly refer to it as “The Hitler Channel,” but eventually the brand offered a more reasonable balance of other historical periods and events.
Now: In 2008, the network shortened its name to “History,” and started to broaden its programming slate to include wildly theoretical history. Shows like Ancient Aliens and Nostradamus Effect raised some eyebrows, leaving some to wonder if the tinfoil-hat contingency was running the show. But at least those shows reference historical events in some way. They seem to fit the brand, unlike some other recent entries, such as Ice Road Truckers, Swamp People, Pawn Stars, American Pickers, Mounted in Alaska, Ax Men, and (most egregious) Top Shot. Yes, you may be able to find some wiggle room in the descriptions of these shows that marginally tie them to history, but the sad truth is they are shows that also could be at home on any number of other networks.
Then: Like A&E, Bravo was once a bastion of higher culture, though often one of a more progressive nature than A&E. Whereas A&E may have drawn a more traditional Masterpiece crowd, Bravo skewed slightly edgier with its mix of art-house films old and new — Fellini and Soderbergh (pre-Ocean’s Eleven) were each just as likely to show up on its schedule at the time — operas, ballets and more. Even memorable series like Fishing With John, which put various personalities, including Dennis Hopper, Tom Waits and others, in a boat with famously reclusive actor/artist/composer/musican John Lurie, gave the network an iconoclast reputation without becoming too inaccessible for its own good.
Now: The Bravo of the early days could have aired a wonderful independent film about the spectacular fall from grace it would experience in the wake of NBCUniversal buyout and subsequent plastic surgery to Bravo’s mission statement. What was once the home to daringly esoteric film and performing arts, the network now, predictably, focuses on reality shows aimed toward what they call “affluencers” — primarily upscale urban women and upscale urban gay men, all of whom arguably should be more intelligent than to watch yet another version of Real Housewives. Film on Bravo these days might include Beverly Hills Cop II or A Very Brady Sequel, but we have to give credit: At least the reality programs it has developed — like Project Runway and Top Chef — require not only talent and skill, but genuine artistic vision, even if the network sent PR packing off to the Lifetime stable. One holdover from the network’s early era is Inside the Actors Studio. Like A&E’s Biography, though, episodes of this show have become few and far between, and overall far less meaningful than they once were, with host James Lipton now finding himself in the chair across from legendary thespians such as Mike Myers. If the youngsters in the Actors Studio are picking up tips from the man behind Love Guru, entertainment may be in even more trouble than we think.
Then: This ecologically minded network debuted in 2008, replacing the superfluous Discovery Home. It was to be the go-to spot for “eco-tainment” — programming that would deliver the message of saving the Earth while also being fun and engaging. The quality of the shows varied (and a were a wee bit full of self-congratulatory celebs), but shows like Alter Eco, Battleground Earth, Wa$ted, Greensburg and Living With Ed all stayed very true to that goal.
Now: Core-message shows — The Fabulous Beekman Boys, Greensburg — still have a prominent place in the schedule, but signs of straying are appearing more and more frequently. Granted, much of these come from off-hour filler material consisting of shows borrowed from the Discovery family of networks, but even the much-hyped new prime-time block Verge has some titles that require some vagueifying of the mission statement. 30 Days? OK, there was that one episode about people living off the grid, but they can’t just rerun that one each time. Conviction Kitchen? Sure, it’s an intense, ultimately uplifting series about a world-renowned chef recruiting a bunch of ex-cons with no prior culinary experience to open a high-end restaurant, but I’m not sure how that helps Mother Earth. It feels like the network is widening the umbrella a bit to go for a general “making the world a better place” vibe. Still, once you let shows like Danger Beach, Famous, Rich and Homeless, UFOs Over Earth and Chainsaw Ice Sculptors through the gate, it gets tougher to maintain any kind of consistent identity. Face it, this isn’t the kind of recycling we signed up for.
Nick at Nite and TV Land
Then: Probably one of the best, most reliable concepts in the niche network canon, these two, born under the MTV Networks banner, came from more or less the same mold. With reruns of popular vintage series — some of which hadn’t been in syndication for many years — Nick at Nite established the model for the “comfort TV” network. Shows like Car 54, Where Are You?, The Addams Family and The Dick Van Dyke Show went into heavy rotation and brought in generations of TV viewers who remembered them fondly, as well as exposing the younger audience to a bit of television history. Much in the same way as MTV’s evolution led to VH1’s creation, Nick at Nite’s paved the way for TV Land, which offered many earlier television staples when Nick at Nite’s schedule had become entrenched in the ’80s.
Now: For the most part, Nick at Nite and TV Land still maintain their missions of reusing and recycling old television, but it’s more the quality of the mix that’s periodically in question, in addition to some dubious decisions over the years — like adding movies and series that have no logical place in the brand, like Extreme Makeover. Lately, Nick at Nite is a haven for George Lopez, My Wife and Kids and The Nanny, while TV Land continues to add new original shows to its lineup, following on the heels of its Betty White-driven success with Hot in Cleveland. Technically, they’re survivors of the genre bending phenomenon, but neither network even in its heyday can match the unbelievably deep television recall of MeTV, which finally went national not long ago, though with limited reach. Both networks, watch your backs for the newcomer. You have been warned.