Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cable TV: Not Just Entertainment Anymore

I intended to refrain from writing on this issue. It is one characterized by such brazen condescension that I refused to believe that the average American was not already privy to it. More often than not this summer, however, I have found my trips to the movie theater beginning with an obnoxious reminder of just how naked the greed of American media companies has become. I am speaking about one of those longform commercials that precedes the trailers at AMC theaters (annoying in and of themselves, but not the point). The ad in question consists of the rocker, Andrew W.K. screaming about how Cartoon Network is now "more than just cartoons." It is a particularly blatant example of a bigger phenomenon that the internet has labeled "unbranding."

Anyone who has watched Cartoon Network in the past few years knew that this was coming. A few years back, executives at the network announced that they would be embracing a broader idea of what "cartoon" means. What did the word really mean in their minds? Things that are not cartoons, of course. The trickle was slow at first – the odd, live action movie here and there – but it was clear that, if this network was subject to the same forces that others are, it would not remain a trickle for long. The History Channel now proudly states that history is "Made Every Day," saving viewers the trouble of wondering how historical this week's "Ice Road Truckers" was. The SciFi Channel has now morphed into some illiterate, bastard spawn called SyFy, side-stepping their long-standing confusion of science fiction, fantasy and Nic Cage movies. One could argue that even the cable news networks play fast and loose with their titles, given how difficult it is to find news on them. (Anyone know what MSNBC stands for, anyway? Thought not.) Now, Cartoon Network is launching CN Real, a block of reality shows that includes programming such as "Destroy Build Destroy." No wonder they need a frenetic music video to justify it.

What does it all mean? In short, nothing – on purpose. When a channel called "Cartoon Network" proudly announces that cartoons are not enough for them anymore, it does not just render the name meaningless; it seems to make meaning the enemy of all things capitalist. It is why the term, "unbranding" is so apt. Traditionally, marketing is about creating a cohesive, unique idea of what a product is in the heads of consumers. The tactics that cable channels are now embracing across the board seem to fly directly in the face of traditional marketing. In fact, it borders on purposeful confusion. These days, the name of a channel is generally a surer indication of what one will not find on a cable channel, than what one will find.

Unless, of course, the channel lacks an identity altogether. If one was to peruse the cable Nielsen ratings on a weekly basis, a handful of channels would quickly emerge as consistent, unopposed successes: USA and TNT. Anyone would tell you that, if anything, these channels could be called "general entertainment." TNT? They "Know Drama," apparently, but they also seem to like airing "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective." ... and USA says "Characters Welcome." Well, that rules out experimental cinema, I suppose. So, what is one to do when they own a cable channel with a woefully specific name, like "Cartoon Network?" Render the name meaningless. Then, it is only a matter of time before its scoring big with ad nauseam "Law & Order" reruns.

It is only natural to emulate something that works. Those fancy-pants ad men on Madison Avenue (ahem, you would think that, at least, the folks at AMC would know about them), however, seem to have their noses to the ground. With all of the cable channels rushing to the same well, it would not be long before it runs dry and Americans power up their cable boxes to find nothing more than an alphabet soup of bland, clone channels... and some porn. To me, it is apparent that such a time has already come.

Yet, even in a recession, most cable companies' subscriber rates have not dropped in any considerable amount, as Americans pay a rising average of $71 per month for the service.

Today's cable channels offer none of the benefits that they did in the 1970's, when the concept was introduced. Most channels quickly dropped their ad-free formats, despite the fact that we were paying to see them. Of course, with ads, comes censorship, the lack of which was another selling point for cable. Now, the final nail has been run in: The promise of niche programming, designed to appeal to one's personal tastes, not the national audiences of the broadcast networks, has been flouted. Today, cable subscribers are left with hundreds of broad-appeal, commercial-supported channels that are filled with repetitive schedules and low-quality programming.

Where are the benefits over broadcast television? Sure, there are more channels but is the gain really that large in a qualitative sense? "Unbranding" should make the answer to this clear. Anything cable has that is worth watching can be rented on DVD. (Hell, HBO is $13 per month. You could buy your favorite shows and probably break even.) Besides, the premium channels do not explain why most people pay about $50 every month for the trash heap that is basic cable. I suppose that sports are tough to find outside of cable, but licensing fees for regional sports channels are astronomicaljust ask your cable company. How much can you love a team that perpetrates such highway robbery? Most teams have a game or two on broadcast networks each week, anyway... in HD, no less.

Most Americans would benefit from stepping back and asking themselves if they only watch cable out of habit. The amount of cable programming that can be considered "appointment viewing" pales in comparison to the amount that people simply watch because it is there. Media companies are relying on that passivity more and more, as the quality of their product steadily declines, and what is there is being spread thinner every day.

When all is considered, there are few reasons to continue to shell out those exorbitant subscription fees. Even if your house does not have a rooftop antenna, it would only cost a month or two's worth of subscription money to fix that. It is a small sacrifice to make for a lifetime of free television. With the digital transition over, broadcast channels have multiplied and their picture quality is great (over-the-air HD is almost always better looking than cable's). Besides, an $852 per year habit is probably one worth kicking, under any circumstances.

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