Nothing the least bit special

The big thing about cable television, back in the good old days (or maybe the old good days), was that you were presumably paying for higher-quality programming. Not anymore:

[T]hey start out with high quality and unique programming, but eventually every channel has its own variant on:

  1.   a show about a pawnshop or “antique pickers”
  2.   some kind of food competition show
  3.   a show about “tiny houses” with impossibly cute couples talking about how “great” it is to trade their big house for what’s essentially a stationary RV
  4.   some kind of freakshow thing about medical conditions
  5.   a fighting-family show, where either the family’s weirdness is the hook, or the fact that they all work in the same industry
  6.   some kind of show that maybe claims some kind of “anthropology” cred but is really voyeurism like all those shows about the Amish a couple years ago.

You could have seen this coming thirty years ago:

By the early 1980s, cable television had reached millions of American households and was starting to draw significant audiences away from the “Big Three” broadcast television networks. All three networks saw opportunities to expand into cable television in order to protect and grow their audiences, and they all experimented with niche programming. In fact, all three traditional networks introduced arts-related channels within one year of each other. CBS launched CBS Cable in 1981, which focused on “art house” and critical acclaimed programs; NBC, meanwhile, launched the similarly formatted The Entertainment Channel.

ABC partnered with the Hearst Corporation to create its own arts-oriented service, the Alpha Repertory Television Service. ARTS launched on April 12, 1981, focusing on highbrow cultural fare such as opera, ballet, classical symphonic performances, dramatic theater productions and select foreign films (besides CBS Cable and The Entertainment Channel, ARTS also competed with Bravo and the Public Broadcasting Service). Many cable providers had limited channel bandwidth at that time over their headends; as a result, CBS Cable struggled to find channel carriage and an audience, eventually folding in late 1982. However, while ARTS fared no better in finding viewers, it shared channel space with Nickelodeon, signing on at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time after the children’s television network ended its broadcast day. That shared channel arrangement was a perfect symbiotic scheduling match for the two networks given their respective audience demographics (the target viewership of ARTS either did not have young children or had sent them to bed by the time the channel began its programming).

What was ARTS is now, um, A&E, and it draws its programming largely from those half-dozen “ideas” above.


  1. Roy »

    10 August 2017 · 3:07 pm

    The programming listed above can be broken down even further.
    Assuming a 1 hour program, no matter what it’s about, each hour will be subdivided as such:
    35 minutes of commercials divided into 7 minute segments.
    15 minutes of the program repeating what happened just before the last commercial break.
    10 minutes of new content.

  2. McG »

    10 August 2017 · 3:11 pm

    I can remember entertainment, at least, on A&E. It’s about to show its sixth and final season on Netflix.

    To be honest, I liked the title character better on A&E — though the version in the books is obviously best.

  3. nightfly »

    10 August 2017 · 3:52 pm

    The same thing that happened to ARTS happened to Bravo, in fact. I remember when it used to be much more along the lines of Turner Classic Movies, which has held the line to a greater extent than just about any other cable channel.

  4. Mike aka Proof »

    10 August 2017 · 8:04 pm

    One of the early pitches I remember from the early years of cable, was that you would see the latest movies before they hit broadcast TV.
    Sample of tonight’s cable movies, by date:
    And that doesn’t include the Turner movie channel: 1958 & 1967

  5. jsallison »

    11 August 2017 · 5:22 pm

    I remember the anti-cable adds at the drive-in. Cable’s big draw at the time: ‘No Commercials’. How long did *that* last.

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