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Culture Watch

Entertainment Industry News by Christopher Gildemeister

For the Week of October 2, 2006

A previous Culture Watch discussed the concept of "cable mission creep" and demonstrated the ways in which cable television has failed of its promise as a haven for special-interest and niche programming, and instead has seen its various networks become devoted to the same violence-and-sex-obsessed fare dominating broadcast television. Nowhere is this trend more obvious – or more deleterious – as on those networks previously devoted to fine arts programming.


Critics generally laud foreign film as superior to most American fare, yet the United States was one of first nations where film as a medium of artistic expression began; and inarguably America's early success with the medium contributed to its worldwide popularity and encouraged the development of film as a medium of expression overseas. Thus, film can be considered one of America's few native art forms, and as such is deserving of proper preservation and presentation.


Such was the original mission of the American Movie Classics cable network. Beginning as a pay service in October 1984, American Movie Classics became a resident of the "basic cable" tier in 1987. At its inception critics gushed over the network and its presentation of classic films, from famous epics to little-seen gems, including silent films, shown around the clock. The network – and the movies it showed – were free from commercial interruption, and thus were able to be viewed as their makers intended them. Spaces between films were often filled by Movietone Newsreels. The network also offered original documentaries on the art of film and the charmingly nostalgic drama Remember WENN. But the network abandoned its dedication to the American artform, and is now a general-interest network similar to others.


"American Movie Classics has devolved into just plain old AMC and, like the fast food chain KFC, refers to itself exclusively by acronym to shroud the content of its product. The word ‘Classics' no longer applies, as you could watch AMC for days and never see one. The schedule used to boast Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton festivals, and films such as Katharine Hepburn's debut in A Bill of Divorcement, and the rarely-screened Frank Capra feature The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Now, AMC is home to Halloween IV [and] RoboCop…All this was done, according to AMC, to attract a younger audience, because heaven knows there just aren't enough cable networks devoted to the 18-34 demographic." – David Hofstede, author of What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History.


AMC's former niche on basic cable is now occupied by Turner Classic Movies, which emulates much of the presentation style and content of the old American Movie Classics; but the trend towards crasser programming may also be creeping upon TCM. The network currently advertises a program in which traditional film host Robert Osborne will face off against the younger and presumably trendier Ben Mankiewicz in arguments over film. TCM has also announced the debut in October of TCM Underground, a series to be hosted by Rob Zombie, director of such stomach-churning movies as House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects.


If cable's treatment of classic film has become skewed toward more explicit violence and sex, it is as nothing compared with the fate of networks and programming originally devoted to the fine arts.


The Bravo network originated in 1980, and featured a gamut of programming devoted to all areas of art, from presentations of Shakespeare and other plays to grand and light opera, as well as more avant-garde productions. Occasionally classically-oriented top-quality drama from film and television were also presented, such as the acclaimed miniseries I, Claudius. But while the audience for arts programming tends to be both financially wealthy and fiercely loyal, it is also small. Furthermore, most of the viewers of fine arts programming are in the over-45 age bracket – an unpardonable sin in the eyes of network programmers and advertisers. After being purchased by NBC in 2002, Bravo began its evolution towards the déclassé format it currently occupies. Today, alongside such hit programs as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, one finds the raunchy standup comedy of Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List; the Desperate Housewives-inspired The Real Housewives of Orange County; Work Out, featuring the clientele of a Beverly Hills gymnasium; Tabloid Wars, which chronicles the cutthroat world of salacious journalists; and presentations of such graphically violent films as The Silence of the Lambs and Pulp Fiction. And while Bravo's executives gamely protest that nothing has changed, such statements are farcical when contrasted with the programming Bravo now offers.


"I take issue with [anyone saying] we've moved away from arts programming…In Project Runway, you see the creative process. Same with Top Chef." -- Frances Berwick, Bravo's executive vice president of programming (Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, July 25, 2006)


However, the decline of fine arts programming on cable television is nowhere more visible than on the Arts and Entertainment network. While Arts and Entertainment was never as intense in its focus as Bravo, it did feature a good deal of arts programming from the network's premiere in 1984. The network also carried the long-running series Biography, as well as showing favorite and "classy" programs, many of them British imports such as The Avengers and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. How far the network has fallen from such dignified fare can be seen by its current programming: Gene Simmons' Family Jewels, featuring the former shock-rock star; Growing Up Gotti, a paean to Mafiosi; Driving Force, about the family problems of a professional drag-racer; and Dog the Bounty Hunter, a reality show devoted to a man who tracks criminals for money. The network's proudest and most recent acquisition is the rerun rights to the crime drama CSI: Miami.


But it is the various "specials" which truly show the network's new priorities. In the last four months, Arts and Entertainment has devoted time to programs like Red Light Districts, an exploration of havens of prostitution around the world (July 10); a biography of former child-porn star Traci Lords and the "documentary" Cleavage, which "explores America's fascination with breasts" (July 21); an airing of the graphic horror movie The Shining (July 28); and an entire weekend devoted to drug use in the programs Hooked: Illegal Drugs (3 hours long), Crank: Made in America and Intervention (August 5 and 6). However, a fascination with violent murder is the new A&E's most prominent feature, as is demonstrated by programs like The Secret Life of a Serial Killer (June 5), Rampage Killers (June 20), Teen Killers (August 26), First Person Killers (September 1) and The Riverman, a "docu-drama" about serial murderer Ted Bundy (September 2). 


In the midst of the network's emphasis on serial killers and drug addiction, A&E does still offer a token reminder of the network's origins, the Sunday-morning program Breakfast with the Arts; but given the programming which now completely dominates the network, that show's producers must feel akin to animal rights activists in a slaughterhouse. The network claims that it is only showing what viewers want to watch; but this age-old canard is exposed as such when one realizes that viewers can only choose to watch what the networks choose to show them. Viewers who tune into a network titled "Arts and Entertainment" deserve access to the arts – not yet another network endlessly rerunning crime dramas. Notably, like AMC, the former Arts and Entertainment network now eschews both its formal title and its former tagline, "Time Well Spent" – a decision which could be regarded as truth in advertising, as the current viewer will find A&E's programming neither artistic nor entertaining, and likely not time well spent.  


The decline of Bravo and A&E has left fine arts programming to the tiny Ovation and Classic Arts networks, neither one of which is carried on most cable systems, and to PBS – where it has been since public television's inception in the 1960s. Not content with the obliterating fine arts programming, the tragic move towards ever greater emphasis on sex and violence on cable now also dominates supposedly educational networks – as will be discussed in the next Culture Watch.


"Followers of the traditional fine arts -- classical music, opera, dance, theater and visual arts…wander homeless in the so-called 500-channel universe that promised shelter for every niche. While networks devoted to everything from cartoons to car culture have thrived …the poetic voice of Paul Robeson has fallen silent to the raspy ravings of Kathy Griffin, and the groundbreaking works of Picasso have been masked in favor of the tattoo-shop shenanigans of Inked." -- culture critic Cary Darling (Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, July 25, 2006)

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