In any other area of business, if a product doesn’t sell, the company making it fails -- but not in the world of pay TV. There, if nobody watches a particular network, the entertainment industry’s answer is simple: change the network’s name…and force people to keep buying it anyway.
The “name-changing” scam is a time-honored one in the world of pay-TV “bundling.” In 2000, Viacom turned the country music channel The Nashville Network into the sex-and-scatology-obsessed, frat-boy Spike TV. In 2008 Court TV, which was intended to give viewers a look inside the judicial process, was renamed “TruTV,” and now shows such educational programming as Full Throttle Saloon, Las Vegas Jailhouse, and Lizard Lick Towing. And in 2010, the Discovery Kids channel, which originally provided educational and documentary programming for children, was sold to the toy company Hasbro, which renamed the channel “the Hub” and filled it with “entertainment” programs which are essentially glorified commercials for the toys Hasbro makes.
Nor does this name-change game show any sign of slowing down. This year alone, six channels will be “rebranded.” Among them, the SPEED network, formerly devoted to NASCAR racing, will become a generic sports channel, in hopes of competing with ESPN, while Fox Soccer will become FXX, a spin-off from the FX network. Going forward, FXX will handle FX’s sleazy, gross-out comedies, while FX concentrates on ultra-violent, gross-out dramas.
Maybe the worst example is NBCUniversal’s soon-to-appear Esquire Network. Previously the G4 network, the channel’s viewership was small but extremely loyal; G4 targeted young technology and video-game fans, and offered live, on-the-spot coverage of the annual San Diego Comic-Con. But now, such fans will be faced with programming like Brew Dogs, in which a pair of Scottish beer snobs travel America insulting local breweries, and Horse Players, about a mob of racetrack touts who hope to get lucky with their betting. NBCUniversal says it wants to reach “today’s educated, upscale man” (read: rich snobs willing to spend lots of money on the stuff NBC advertises). Apparently, NBC believes video-game and tech fans just aren’t “educated” and “upscale” enough to matter.
Of course, only a tiny fraction of Esquire’s programming will actually reflect the network’s new concept. Mostly, the channel will be glutted with reruns of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Parks and Recreation, and other programs already owned by NBC. This is in keeping with the whole unfortunate direction of pay TV. Where once pay-TV networks had a core concept that they stuck to and delivered on, today, practically every network on cable is just another place to show reruns of Law & Order.
This should infuriate subscribers. In discussing Cable Choice, the PTC often says, “people shouldn’t have to pay for channels they never watch.” What better example is there than the dozens of channels clogged with ultra-cheap “reality” shows and endless reruns of programs that nobody watched to begin with?
To take just one example: not everyone is a hard-core science-fiction fan. In fact, most people aren’t. There is absolutely no reason why everyone should have to pay a monthly portion of their cable or satellite bill to support the Syfy channel. And if, by chance, one IS a science-fiction fan, then that viewer deserves to actually get science-fiction on the channel he or she is paying for – not the cops-in-a-beach-house drama Graceland, wrestling matches, and cheesy game shows. And absolutely NO cable or satellite channel should EVER show “infomercials.” Think about it: you are paying almost $100 a month, and what are you getting in return? Hundreds of hour-long COMMERCIALS!
It’s not just viewers who are sick of the entertainment industry’s bait-and-switch tactics; even cable and satellite companies are fed up – because, unlike the bosses behind the entertainment industry conglomerates that control programming, cable and satellite companies actually have to deal with irate customers. Recently, both DirecTV and Time Warner Cable, two of the biggest pay-TV services, complained that they have no control over the changes in network name and content. The companies sign contracts agreeing to carry certain channels, but then are caught flat-footed when the channel's owner arbitrarily decides to change the name and concept of the channel. Yet the cable company is stuck having to carry it -- and force customer to pay for it -- even though viewers may abandon the new channel in droves. Representing cable and satellite's perspective, Dan York, head of programming for DirecTV, said, “You bargain for a specific service that you were [told would] meet the needs of consumers. If that [channel] doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean the content provider has a unilateral right to turn it into something else.” But that’s exactly what the entertainment industry conglomerates do.
More and more viewers are opting out of cable or satellite packages, and moving to watch programs on the Internet through services like Amazon Prime and Netflix; and millions of others have abandoned pay-TV programming altogether. This reflects their needs and desires: who wants to pay for hundreds of channels they don't want? And even if viewers manage to find something they DO like, it's entirely possible the conglomerates will change the channel's name and take its programming away. As cable companies and customers alike become ever-more dissatisfied, the corporate conglomerates behind the bundle will soon be faced with a choice: change – or collapse.