It happens with disgusting regularity. You will flip through the various basic cable channels which are nominally “science oriented” (often grouped together on the dial if they feature scientific topics) and come up with nothing but junk, pseudoscience, and worse. “Reality shows” about subjects with little or no science content, tons of paranormal and pseudoscientific shows promoting ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and creationism—all fill the airwaves for channels like Discovery, The Learning Channel, History Channel, and even the Science Channel and National Geographic Channel. We watch a few minutes of these with complaints to anyone within earshot, then (usually) move on—or occasionally we get sucked in to watch the whole thing, like gawkers at a car crash. The cartoon at the top (from the great website PhdComics) says it all: four channels that used to be largely documentaries on science and history are now dominated by guns, explosions, dangerous occupations and other “reality” TV. Their shows have buzz words in the titles like “biggest”, “wildest”, “monsters” or “killers”, and plain old junk fill up most of their air time.
I’ve seen it from both sides. I’ve appeared in prehistoric animal documentaries that have aired on all four channels (and keep re-appearing years after I made them, so I feel like Dorian Gray, with my younger self perpetually preserved in documentary limbo). Almost all these documentaries are made by small independent film outfits that are searching for any sexy topic that they can sell to the major cable networks, so they are under great pressure to come up with something flashy, noisy, scary, and/or mysterious. If I have any chance to review the script, I try my best to tone down the excessive hyperbole, but they usually ignore me. As I film segments with them, I try to be as dynamic and entertaining as a “talking head” can be, but they are always pushing me to oversimplify and exaggerate to make the spiel more colorful (but less scientifically accurate). And then when I see the final product, most of what I did ends up on the cutting room floor, with only a few seconds left of many hours of filming. Even worse, I’ve put in many hours on projects that never got picked up at all. Documentary filmmaking is a high-risk, low-reward proposition—you have better odds of making big money in Vegas.
So we all complain about the changes in our basic cable channels, and wonder why such dreck can make it on the air, but seldom think hard about the process. But the excellent website TVTropes does a very nice job analyzing what happens to TV networks over time. To no one’s surprise, it comes down to one simple factor: ratings (and therefore money from advertisers), largely driven by the effort to woo those big-spending trend-setting 18-31 male viewers who already dictate the movie industry’s bottom line (although movies aim even lower to reach teenage boys, the biggest-spending and most loyal movie audience). As TVTropes points out (and those of us old enough to remember can attest to), it wasn’t always this bad on cable TV. When the laws changed and the opportunity to create hundreds of basic cable channels first emerged in the 1980s, the channels were initially set up to fill specific programming niches, from the Golf Channel to the Game Show Network and so on. In the early 1980s, all these new niche-driven cable channels were very distinct and more or less true to their niche description. But since these are commercial channels that must sell ads based on numbers of viewers, the same factors that affect every other commercial enterprise came into play: keep tweaking it and give the customer whatever sells the most. (This dynamic does not apply to non-commercial stations like PBS in the U.S., or the BBC in Britain, which can program what they feel is in the public interest).
As TVTropes documents, nearly all these niche-defined networks have undergone “network decay” since they were founded in the 1980s, as their programming shifts to find hit shows. Because they are nearly all chasing nearly the same demographic of 18-31 year old males, they end up programming a lot of the same kinds of things (or even the same shows). Their original mission and distinctive programming is lost in a sea of reality shows and junk that keeps you in your seat, whether it be explosions or dangerous occupations or whatever. Another factor has been the expansion of media conglomerates, so that these multiple cable channels are owned by just a few corporations, and the CEO of each channel must answer to corporate bosses who are only interested in their profitability, not any abstract “mission” to air certain types of programming. So much for the high-minded idealism that drove the deregulation of the airwaves in the 1970s and 1980s, with the intent of offering us dozens of distinct choices. Instead, they all “decay” to a lowest-common-denominator of “if it bleeds, it leads” bottom-line mentality, negating whatever real advantages that dozens of distinctive niche cable channels once offered. As TVTropes points out, the decisions are made by network execs worried only about their ratings and bottom lines, not any high-minded ideal like “quality television” that PBS brags so loudly about. They could (and did) notice that professional “wrestling” is popular with their 18-31 male demographic, and see no problem with programming the WWE next to a show about science.
TVTropes offers as a classic example the pioneering channel MTV, which single-handedly changed the music business in the early 1980s and made telegenic pop artists into big stars (e.g., Michael Jackson, Madonna) while ending the careers of less telegenic musicians (e.g., Christopher Cross). But soon MTV found it was more profitable to offer reality shows, cartoons, game shows, and many other kinds of programming until the original music videos that it pioneered have vanished altogether. TVTropes analyzed the decay of the cable channels in various categories. Under “Total Abandonment” (of their original mission) they list not only MTV, A&E, G4, CMT, Biography, and The Learning Channel (TLC). In their words:
TLC, originally focusing around science and nature documentaries in the style of the Discovery Channel, drifted toward almost nothing but “home makeover”-style reality shows. In a somewhat confusing (in these days of internet porn) play at grabbing the all-important 18-30 male demographic, TLC acquired the rights to air the Miss America pageant. After sufficient decay, one would never guess that TLC used to be called The Learning Channel and was once co-owned by NASA.
Under the category “Slipped”, we find The History Channel. As TVTrope comments:
[Their] programming now consists of roughneck-focused reality shows (Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men) and conspiracy theory “documentaries” about UFOs, the Bible Code, ghosts, Atlantis, Nostradamus, and the end of the world, earning the network the derisive nickname “The Hysterical Channel”. Heck, at least the “Hitler Channel,” as they used to be known (back when everything was about either World War II, Nazis or The American Civil War), was actual history.
Their analysis of Discovery Channel is even more hilarious:
The Discovery Channel still shows plenty of actual documentary material, despite having been decaying for almost as long as MTV has. In the late 80s the lineup was mostly serious documentaries, the most famous of which was Wings (no relation to the sitcom except for a focus on aircraft) but which also included classy repackaged BBC imports like Making of a Continent — and once a year there was Shark Week, which was just what you’d expect. By the mid-1990s, they showed an obscene amount of home improvement shows and cooking shows aimed at stay-at-home moms (enough to spawn the spin-off Discovery Home & Leisure Channel, now Planet Green) and Wings had proven so popular it had been farmed out to its own spin-off, Discovery Wings Channel (now Military Channel). Now, they’re being swamped with “guys building and/or blowing things up” shows in the vein of Mythbusters and Monster Garage. And about four different shows about credulous idiots with no critical thinking skills ghost hunters. In 2005, Discovery debuted Cash Cab, a game show that takes place in the back of a cab, leaving one unsure whether it even has a theme beyond “non-fiction”. It gets weird when you realize that they’re knocking some of their own shows off, especially Mythbusters into Smash Lab (with a focus on safety measures) and How It’s Made into Some Assembly Required. The latter has almost only done products featured in the former (though How It’s Made has been on for just about ten years, so it’s hard to find something they haven’t done). The Discovery Channel also used to contain a lot of nature, which is where the now-classic Shark Week (which they still air regularly) originated from. But it seems that explosions have taken the place of tigers ripping stuff to pieces. Most of the nature shows have since been relegated to Animal Planet.
Finally, the Science Channel and National Geographic Channel are the only two that still run mostly science documentaries with little junk, yet National Geographic still has “The Bounty Hunter,” “Is it Real?”, and “The Dog Whisperer.” Science Channel has begun airing sci-fi programming, including “Firefly” and “Dark Matters: Twisted but True,” so they are running pop-pseudoscience garbage that now pollutes The History Channel.
Frankly, I don’t see any light at the end of this tunnel. As long as these are commercial TV channels, they are driven by ratings and lowest-common-denominator programming aimed at 18-31 men. Only PBS and other non-commercial stations can escape this “network decay”—but then they compensate by annoying pledge drives that rerun old shows with sentimental value so that viewers will tune in and hopefully donate. Maybe the BBC, with its government support of top-quality science and drama programming (which the U.S. market then borrows or rips off) seems immune, although there are BBC channels that are lowbr0w as well. After all, Benny Hill reruns have done well on American TV for years….