SDD's Top 100 Series of All Time -- Supplemental list #2: Ten Cable Networks that Changed Everything
Picking which of the big networks changed the world more than another is a fool's game. Even though Fox and The WB slightly changed the audience these networks were looking for, all of them ostensibly chased the big tent audience. It took cable to really say, "This network is ONLY going to target this audience; everyone else be damned."
In the 1980s, this seemed like self-defeating behavior -- what good was ONLY courting sports fans or newshounds? But over time, advertisers became aware that you could pitch VERY specific products to very specific audiences. And that's how advertising rates for television continue to climb and climb and climb, even as the ratings overall are dropping. If I can target JUST the science fiction fans, then I can pitch video games or comic books or other things I think they might like JUST to them. A handful of "general interest" cable networks still exist (USA, TNT, to an extent), but nearly every channel, including the channels that started out as general interest ones, has slowly focused on its niche.
I originally thought that these networks would all be ones I couldn't find representative shows for, but that ultimately seemed dishonest. So here are ten cable networks that changed the world and made it a niche-ier place.
Fox News rode a wave that the below-surface conservative talk radio earthquake had sent careening toward the shore, and it crashed right up against the mainland and its ideas of what news was, of how far a network could go in choosing a side and of how far a news organization would go in jumping over the line between propaganda and news. Fox News has gotten a bit of a black eye in recent years, and its ratings have slipped considerably, but for a while there, especially after Sept. 11, Fox News was THE place to turn for news with a conservative bent. It's incredibly hard to find a friendly word for Fox News on the Internet, which skews more progressive, but the network spoke to a large audience of angry, predominantly white, predominantly middle-aged men (predominantly), who tuned in in droves to watch the network's parade of angry white, middle-aged men, stars like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and even the glum-faced Brit Hume. Fox News took the news and stripped it of context, turning politics and international incidents into sporting events. Watching Fox News was less about having your preexisting biases confirmed and more about feeling you were a part of the winning team. For better or worse, Fox News' "Home Team" approach has spread out across the cable dial, though it's less pronounced than it was a few years ago.
Signature Program: The O'Reilly Factor, the original angry white man conservative talk show. Bill O'Reilly took Rush Limbaugh's act, dumbed it down for TV and made it a show. Though ratings have slid, it's still very popular.
Out of the ashes of two failed comedy networks -- HA! and The Comedy Channel -- Comedy Central was formed, largely as a place for old sitcom reruns nobody else wanted, stand-up routines that weren't Carson material and Mystery Science Theater 3000. At the time, the idea of a channel dedicated to JUST comedy seemed odd. After all, hadn't the channel's two ancestors been decimated by an audience that just didn't care? Slowly, though, Comedy Central gained a toehold, especially with 18-34-year-old males, who didn't care if a series had lasting value beyond making them laugh. MST3K also slowly caught on, especially with its Thanksgiving Day marathons, and the network discovered the power of brand loyalty. As the channel continued to be successful, more genre-specific cable networks sprung up -- Sci Fi, Chiller, the rebranded TBS, Cartoon Network -- and Comedy Central seemed more and more like an essential for a cable package. And then came South Park, which turned the channel into what it is today -- a casual blend of biting political satire and grossout gags, tailored to the 18-34-year-old male attention span.
Signature Program: South Park. If you look at EVERY OTHER SHOW on Comedy Central, it's amazing how this one show blends them all together into one raunchy package. It helped that it was the network's first huge hit.
So just how specific could you GET with your cable network? If you could, indeed, focus on one GENRE, could you focus on one relatively broad subject matter? Like, say, food? The Food Network was another channel that most cultural critics predicted quick failure for. And while the network has never had a huge hit, its influence on the culture of American eating has, for better or worse, been substantial. Food Network rather pioneered the idea of having one network that could be comfort food TV to a very specific type of consumer. If you like food, you can turn on the channel at any time and learn how to cook it or where to go to taste the best examples of it or. . .whatever you like. The Food Network wasn't just selling a channel about food -- it was selling a way of life, a method of making yourself better and showing off to those around you. Its progeny include HGTV, the Fine Living Network and most of TLC. To watch The Food Network is to say, "I fancy myself someone who likes fine food." It's TV as wearing a T-shirt of your favorite band.
Signature Program: Rachael Ray was huge, but Emeril Lagasse got there first, and his high-impact cooking signaled just what the Food Network would be all about.
Cable wasn't just about serving underutilized genres and topics; it could also serve whole demographics that felt underserved by the big networks. Laugh all you want, but the existence of The Nashville Network helped lead to the giant explosion of country music in the 90s. People in predominantly rural areas could watch programming that was tailored to their interests, from country music countdowns to rodeo broadcasts to hunting and fishing programs. The Nashville Network was never anything very sophisticated, and when you look at video of it from the '80s, it pales in comparison to MTV and other music networks of the time. But it served an underserved niche of customers, and probably helped spread cable beyond urban areas (my grandparents, in particular, only got cable so they could watch the country dancing on TNN). In its own way, TNN helped lead to the influx of complaints about how TV didn't have enough family values. If you could watch completely unobjectionable stuff on TNN, why the heck couldn't you on the other networks? The network sold out to Viacom and is now Spike TV of all things.
Signature Program: Crook and Chase was the original country video countdown, and its two hosts became stars in their own right and popped up all over country radio in the late '80s and early '90s.
Where would cable be without the cheap-ass, ostensibly educational documentary about UFOs or the discovery of the polio vaccine or the bald eagle? The Discovery Channel launched as a way to provide a lot of cheap, quick educational content quickly. It was basically a clearinghouse for docs that just weren't good enough to get picked up by PBS or HBO. If your teacher had a VCR, they could tape a Discovery Channel program and take that period off. Discovery was kind of low-rent for a long while, but its content gave it something of a free pass with the critical community, parents and educators. Later, though, the network would start to commission its own programming, and the amount of worthwhile content exploded, especially as the show looked into things on the cutting edge of science and launched theme weeks that let it show off lots of programming. The network has spun off many other networks, most notably TLC and Animal Planet, and it has many direct competitors now, including the National Geographic Channel. While Discovery proper airs a lot more reality shows now than it ever did, most of them are of higher quality than what you might see on A&E (Deadliest Catch is rather riveting, on its own terms).
Signature Program: SHARK WEEK! Now 20 years old, Shark Week is Discovery in a nutshell -- the wonders of the natural world distilled into a documentary designed to scare you.
The idea of having a channel dedicated JUST to children's programming seems pretty self-evident now, in an age of Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., the Nicktoons network, Nick GAS, The Disney Channel, Cartoon Network, ABC Family, Sprout, etc., etc., etc. But when Nickelodeon started up, no one quite knew if parents would drop their kids in front of it for extended periods of time. Sure parents had used TV as a babysitter for years, but would they use it as the ONLY babysitter? Like you had to ask. Nickelodeon pitched an idea of childhood as a wacky time, full of fun adventures, to its core audience, and the core audience gobbled that up. Nickelodeon has been passed up in the ratings in recent years by some of its copycats, but it remains the first and the standard-bearer, especially for people of a certain age (which would be mine).
Signature Program: Rugrats. The world as playground, animated from a child's point-of-view and full of gentle adventures that didn't try too hard to set the world on fire.
The FIRST cable channel and the first to charge a premium rate to subscribe (rather than just being wrapped in with other channels in a basic cable package), HBO seems like it should be higher on the list, but it never seized hold on the public imagination like the three channels above it did, at least not until the late 90s. HBO was showing great movies, boxing and original series from its very beginning, but its rather pricey fee kept it out of most American homes for a good, long while (as Captain Midnight well knew). Still, it was TV as a luxury item. If you could afford HBO (or its lower-rent cousins, Showtime, The Movie Channel and Cinemax), you were living large, and you could invite your friends over to watch a big movie or a boxing match or something. HBO practically invented TV as something aspirational, rather than something that anyone could get for free if they owned the set. That and it reinvented what we thought of for cable series with The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Sex and the City.
Signature Program: The Sopranos. THE show of the late '90s and early 2000s, and it was on cable. It may have been the first ever time that the biggest stories of the year centered on a channel the majority of the American people didn't even get.
Sports has become the new American religion, in many ways. And that can mostly be traced to ESPN. To say that ESPN has had an influence on American culture is an understatement. Before 1979, most American sports (with the possible exception of Major League Baseball) were regional affairs. You cheered for your local NFL or NBA team, and if you didn't have a local team, you mostly didn't pay attention to the league. Before 1979, college sports were a small-time affair, and few people paid attention to the Final Four unless their team was in it. And before 1979, local news sports reports were mostly staid affairs, and no one had ever heard of a highlight reel. ESPN both ramped up sports, turning them into one long snarky party, and hyper-mythologized them, making them seem like the sort of thing that should be held in reverence and awe. It's really sort of hard to overstate the influence of ESPN (both positive and negative -- how many preening jackasses has the network inspired?) and stay pithy, so I'll cut this short and assume you can fill in the rest.
Signature Program: SportsCenter. You can see the influence of SportsCenter EVERYwhere, not just on ESPN -- think of The Daily Show, which is basically SportsCenter with politics or think of the sportscaster on your evening news. Whatever effect the highlight reel has had on American sports coverage, it IS the primary method of sports reporting now. (Also: Did you know the guy who wrote the SportsCenter theme song ALSO wrote Faith Hill's "This Kiss?")
My first and second place networks are basically in a tie. One had a greater influence on the entertainment culture, while the other had a greater influence on our political and news culture. Since I think the latter is more "important," I ranked MTV lower than CNN, but I can't say I would be surprised if anyone ranked MTV at the top. MTV, of course, all but invented modern youth culture, chasing the 12-24-year-old audience to the exclusion of almost all else. Its initial mission was to provide record companies with a new way to reach the youthful consumers they wanted to buy albums, but it inadvertently touched off a revolution in the WAY things were filmed when its music videos (with their quick cutting) sent seismic waves throughout the culture as a whole. Quick cuts became the order of the day in all types of filmmaking. Meanwhile, MTV carefully segmented its audience, creating shows focusing on metal, rap and alternative music, then abandoned music altogether in favor of chasing increasingly vapid celebrations of youth culture. (The first "Why doesn't MTV air videos anymore?" article appeared in 1988!) MTV is still THE place for 12-24-year-olds to go to get entertainment, but it increasingly feels desperate, especially as it's now too old to be in its own key demographic. Still, MTV is the network you watch when you're 14 and 15, and that means it shapes a surprising amount of your tastes. Just how different am I for having the Blind Melon "bee" video come on at that vital point of my life, as opposed to you, who might be watching The Hills?
Signature Program: I was torn between The Real World, which largely invented the MTV we watch today, and Total Request Live, which tried to blend the old and new MTVs. TRL, I think, is the best example of what MTV was at its height -- fast-paced, largely empty of meaningful content and full of youth appeal.
CNN was another network that struck many pundits as self-defeating. Who would always want to watch the news? How would the network fill that time? As it turned out, the network would fill out that time with lots of talking heads, lots of talk shows, lots of prefabricated debates and lots of useless stories. In short, CNN invented the political and news culture we live in. The network made an admirable effort at filling time with actual news, including international news, but it soon became apparent that what the people wanted was the same stuff over and over and over. CNN got unprecedented access to news events and just kept saying the same things in slightly different ways. And when that failed, it would report stuff on celebrities. CNN all but invented infotainment, the predominant form of news in our culture today. It took something as awful as war and turned it into the awesomest TV show you ever did see.
Signature Program: CNN's coverage of the first Iraq War in 1991 changed the way that people thought about covering war by getting right into the thick of it in Baghdad. It also inadvertently invented the second Bush administration's careful handling of reporters in the second Iraq War.
Today's Christmas tune: Over the Rhine's "Little Town" is an excellent, folky reworking of "O, Little Town of Bethlehem." Like it? Their excellent CD Snow Angels, available here, might be for you.
Tomorrow: Places #90-81, including the Internet's most-hated sitcom, dumb teenagers and a show I don't really like all that much.