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Culture Watch

Entertainment Industry News by Christopher Gildemeister

For the Week of September 18, 2006

A previous edition of Culture Watch discussed the concept of "mission creep" and examined the applicability of the term to Hollywood's film and television ratings system.  The "creep" affecting entertainment ratings, allowing ever more graphic content to be considered appropriate for ever younger viewers, is a serious problem worthy of note and action by parents and those in charge of issuing ratings. But there is another equally serious form of "mission creep" which has been taking place in recent years: that of the cable networks themselves.


Cable television originated in 1948. For the next twenty-five years it was to be found in rural or remote areas where distance or geography prevented the reception of television broadcast signals originating in large cities. Then in November 1972 the concept of "pay TV" was born when the new Home Box Office (HBO) network began offering films and special events exclusively to cable subscribers. The trend accelerated in 1976, when entrepreneur Ted Turner gained satellite distribution to cable systems nationwide for his Atlanta-based television station WTBS, which was rapidly dubbed "America's SuperStation." In the next five years, other new networks such as Showtime, The Movie Channel, Nickelodeon, CNN, USA and MTV appeared. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, ever more cable networks debuted, helped tremendously by Congressional deregulation of cable in 1992.  By 1998 over 66% of American homes had subscribed to cable television.

Those who remember the years when the cable television was growing may recall the promises which its promoters made. Potential viewers were told that, at last, they would be freed of the restrictive pabulum of the three broadcast networks. Cable's boosters proclaimed that, because cable television was a subscription-based service, there would never be any commercials. Furthermore, it was promised that there would be hundreds of channels with every conceivable minority interest being served. Because the cable networks would be by subscription only, the public was told, such networks would not be forced to rely on popularity as broadcast television was. As a result, ratings would be unimportant and cable television as a whole would be freed of any need to pursue only young viewers with a "desirable demographic."


Such promise has failed – abominably.


At their outset, most cable networks had a clearly defined mission, and offered programming in accord with that mission, and which presumably appealed to the audiences at which the network was aiming to begin with. But repeatedly, networks established with a clear purpose have been overtaken by "mission creep".  Indeed, it almost appears that there is an evolutionary law of cable television which requires that over time each channel will develop in such a way that it will ultimately have little or nothing to do with its title or original premise. And tragically, this "creep" has been overwhelmingly in the direction of more graphic violence, sex, foul language and degrading content.


When it began on August 1, 1981, the MTV network was devoted to rock music, offering creative music videos and rock industry news. With the network celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary last month, it is obvious that now the supposed "Music Television" network has almost nothing to do with music. Today MTV has been transformed into a showplace of smut, being consumed by raunchy teen "reality" programs such as Laguna Beach, the interminable The Real World and the moronic and execrable Jackass; game shows like Yo' Momma (in which contestants are rewarded for the most creative insult), and "humor" programs such as Celebrity Deathmatch, which uses Claymation techniques to portray graphic violence and gore in its depictions of various minor celebrities battling one another.


To fill the void created by MTV's abandonment of music coverage, parent company Viacom created the VH1 network (the "VH" supposedly standing for "Video Hits"). Yet VH1 fell to the same influence, and today fills its own programming hours with "documentaries" like The Drug Years and I Love the 70s! which celebrate celebrity excesses, and with other un-musical programming such as Celebrity Fit Club.


Such "mission creep" has in varying degrees gradually come to infect most other cable networks. While there is an abundance of actual country music still to be found on Country Music Television, such programs as Hogan Knows Best, a series featuring wrestler Hulk Hogan (and which originated on VH1), have also been seen on the network.


Similarly, the Sci-Fi channel, which once aired classic science-fiction films and television programming and originally proclaimed itself as a 24-hour science fiction haven, now also seeks to "broaden" its viewership. While some classic series air during the day and a few original science-fiction programs are produced, Sci-Fi's evening stock in trade has become poorly-produced graphic horror films with titles like "Exorcism", "Slayer" and "The Unborn" (which featured murderous babies on the rampage). A further betrayal of Sci-Fi's 24-hour science-fiction mission can be found in the wee hours, where wrestling matches are interspersed with infomercials.


Other "general interest" networks have also become followers of the trend. USA, which once boasted such cheekily irreverent yet clean programming as Night Flight, Up All Night, Commander USA's Groovy Movies and Kung Fu Theater, today shows reruns of the sex-crime drama Law and Order: Special Victims Unit nearly every night – and in the 8 pm (7 pm Central) timeslot. The TNT network has similarly focused itself of violence and crime; where once TNT showed popular movies, now reruns of Law and Order and Without a Trace dominate.


While the E! network was always dedicated to fluff and celebrity gossip, it now appears to have become a subsidiary of Playboy magazine. In addition to airing its series The Girls Next Door (the very title of which suggests that being a Playboy centerfold and mistress of Hugh Hefner is an average, typical behavior in which most women participate), E! has devoted two-hour specials to Hefner's biography, the rise of the Playboy corporate empire, and to pornographic film star Jenna Jameson. 


In spite of their optimistic promises to offer programming new and different, cable networks have become caught up in the same relentless push for ratings, desire for younger viewers and pursuit of profit as the broadcast cousins to which they originally proclaimed themselves superior. Abandoning their original premise as a medium devoted to superior programming, they now offer the same sex-and- violence-soaked fare as the networks they intended to replace. But it is not only the general interest cable networks that have succumbed to this tendency; the trend has also had dire results for arts and documentary programming, as will be shown in future Culture Watch columns.

"[Networks] always start out with the best of intentions…then they find out there's a need for ratings. The bottom line is that it's all about money. 'What can we produce that's as cheap as possible?' As long as that's the case, [other programming] will take a back seat."  -- Andrew Clark, assistant professor in the communications department at the University of Texas (Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, July 25, 2006)

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