Are specialty TV networks beyond salvation?

Are specialty TV networks beyond salvation?

I think it was getting caught up in the Sharknado that finally did it.

Everyone had fun hashtagging the hell out of the Syfy original movie (concerning a tornado-full of sharks, if you haven’t seen it) on Twitter, myself included. (I posit that the title Tornsharko sounds scarier, but that’s me.) Essentially, that’s what Syfy original movies, with their intentionally dopey, punning titles are there for—to provide reasonably priced programming that viewers will make fun of and, theoretically, tune in for. As Caroline Framke’s fun, perceptive review pointed out, there’s nothing wrong with such deliberately self-mocking genre fare, essentially fodder for viewers to play Mystery Science Theater 3000 via the Internet. And if the viewership didn’t live up to the online hype, well, at least the experience gave comedians a chance to hone their craft and D-list celebrities a paycheck. No harm, no foul.

What niggled at me was the fact that, for the most part, that’s what Syfy (né The Sci-Fi Channel, formerly Sci-Fi) has become—a cheesy repository for ironic viewing. Especially since, when the channel began, there was some hope that it would instead be the TV locus of inventive genre programming, a science-fiction singularity that would draw original, exciting minds of the field into orbit and produce shows and films that would expand the genre.

But that’s not what’s happened. Not at Syfy and not at most other “niche” channels born at the start of the cable boom. Instead, those channels, launched with similar mission statements in diverse disciplines, have largely discarded their original intentions or, in Syfy’s case, allowed them to morph into something still recognizable, but shot through with lazy self-mockery.

With the birth of cable, TV suddenly felt akin to the opening of the West—a vast, unexplored wilderness just waiting vacantly to be filled with jury-rigged programming, an inexhaustible televisual landscape where viewers could suddenly, bewilderingly, choose from hundreds of channels, each cobbled together according to its own, often-eccentric civic design. (Yes, the actual West was already populated by millions of people but, hey, not all metaphors are perfect.)

Viewers, confronted with this theretofore-unimagined plethora of choices, may have seen some of the channels’ narrow foci as nothing but a novelty (in an Anchorman DVD special feature, Will Ferrell’s ’70s newsman predicts the embryonic ESPN will be “a financial and cultural disaster,” and he wasn’t alone), but they tuned in anyway. In 1995, history buffs, for example, were no doubt delighted that there was suddenly something called The History Channel, overflowing with, as it seemed, an endless roster of WWII documentaries and the like. (It, like the early Arts And Entertainment Network were popularly dubbed “all-Hitler channels” at various times.)

Similarly, enthusiasts of all stripes found relief of their previously underfed desires for stations devoted to fine arts and opera (Bravo), “women’s programming” (Lifetime), and arts and entertainment (um, the Arts And Entertainment Network). And while the nascent networks’ initial lineups may have struck even their most ardent supporters as a bit thin, low-rent, or downright odd, they continued to proliferate, hinting at a future where television might actually have something for everyone’s tastes.

A few decades later, here’s where we are:

The History Channel changed its name to History and shunted much of the actual, you know, history onto its subsidiary, the even-pithier-named and less-watched H2. Not only is there a dearth of history on History, there’s been a gradual creep of both pseudoscientific shows focusing on decidedly ahistorical nonsense (the Mayan apocalypse, Nostradamus, and so forth), and plain old reality series (Ice Road Truckers, Axe Men, Pawn Stars) whose claim to historical significance is nonexistent, unless as archival markers of the loss of the network’s raison d’être. 

Bravo—launched in 1980 with a mix of fine arts, film, opera, and other stagecraft, and which, rather endearingly in retrospect, once celebrated a major underwriting arrangement with sponsor Texaco for a special stage production of Romeo And Juliet—is now regarded as the home of lowbrow reality programming. That window opened in 2000 when Queer Eye For The Straight Guy found a surprisingly receptive audience, and now anyone turning to Bravo hoping to find Aïda will instead be greeted by the likes of Princesses: Long Island, and The Real Housewives Of… well, everywhere boxed wine is sold. It’s difficult to imagine the erudite, clipped tones of early Bravo host, actor E.G. Marshall announcing, “On this week’s episode of L.A. Shrinks…” But, perhaps now it’s easier to think of the network’s name pronounced mockingly by Homer Simpson’s brain. (“Braaaaavo,” with accompanying slow clap.)

Lifetime, began in 1984 with the mission statement of “advocating a wide range of issues affecting women and their families,” which has become an easy punchline, trucking in reality shows like the outright misogynistic Pretty Wicked Moms and remaining home to “problem movies” where those issues are trivialized in weepy melodramas like the legendary Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?

When the Arts And Entertainment Network became A&E in 1995, an executive ominously explained the change thusly: “The word ‘arts,’ in regard to television, has associations such as ‘sometimes elitist,’ ‘sometimes boring,’ ‘sometimes overly refined’ and ‘doesn’t translate well to TV.’” Those anti-intellectual rumblings came to fruition in 2002, when A&E basically threw in the towel and became yet another haven for the shrill and ostensibly unscripted. While cultural critics (as in Sonia Saraiya’s thought-provoking review of the oft-reviled Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) might seek to ascribe meaning to reality TV, A&E’s reality history (Dog The Bounty Hunter, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, Cold Case Files, Growing Up Gotti, American Justice, Inked, and Criss Angel Mindfreak,to name but a few) resists even the most tenuous connection to the network’s original mission.

Even MTV, whose music-video format wasn’t winning many critical accolades (or fan letters from moms), at least was what it was. That is until the public’s insatiable desire for high-carb reality fare saw the music in “music television” shouldered aside in favor of such decidedly atonal stuff as Jersey Shore and its spawn. Now there’s nary a White Snake video to be seen—I ask you, is that progress?

And Syfy? While still nominally a science-fiction-based channel, its roster of deliberately risible original monster flicks and ghost-hunting series began to share space with episodes of Law & Order, WWE wrestling, and, of course, reality shows. Even the recent rebranding seems emblematic of the network’s desire to not alienate even one single potential viewer by seeming “too brainy,” a decision praised with signature irony by Stephen Colbert as a victory in the “long fought battle against the insidious ‘soft C’.” Not to pick on Sharknado, but watching the inordinate outflow of media chatter swept along in its fishy wake (and discovering that it had a budget of some $2 million), it seems inevitable to imagine what a different Syfy (or dare I call it Sci-Fi) network could have done with that money.

Shane Carruth’s endlessly inventive sci-fi drama of ideas Primer cost $7,000. Sandy Collora’s cleverly resourceful Hunter Prey was made for around $400,000. Cory McAbee’s little-seen David Lynch-goes-to-space oddity The American Astronaut came in at about $1 million. There are innumerable aspiring sci-fi filmmakers who could benefit from the exposure (and the money) of a major TV network devoted full-time to finding such talent and developing it. Instead of, say, roping in third-tier TV actors to wave chainsaws at CGI sharks in a tornado.

And lest this be confused with wishful thinking, it must be restated that such places—be they devoted to science fiction, history, music, or the arts—already existed. Now they do not (not in any meaningful form at least). These niche networks were launched, if not in a spirit of idealism (business is business, after all), at least in anticipation that such targeted, in-depth concentrations of specific television interests would build an audience. The undeniable fact that, one by one, these channels have ceded their prime directives (if you will) to a lower and still-lower approximation of mainstream popular taste is a cause for thought, if not alarm, depression, and cynical online think pieces.

The question must be asked, then, “Who or what is to blame?” and, subsequently, “Is there any sign this trend will be reversed?” TV is a money-based enterprise. For a network to be successful, it must justify its existence with viewers and the attendant revenue in the form of advertising. If those numbers fail to maintain the network’s mission as it is, one must concede that the network isn’t going to be around forever in its current form. Does that mean there’s no place for such channels any more? Not necessarily. Syfy has announced it’s bringing back Ronald D. Moore, producer of the network’s celebrated Battlestar Galactica reboot, for a new series (Helix) and, if the additional prospect of a show based on Waterworldisn’t promising in itself, the hint that the network is willing to throw some money at more original programming is. Baby steps.

That being conceded, if these networks felt compelled to change (some might uncharitably say “dumb down”) their formats to chase ratings, that was only one possible decision, one possible format change out of an infinity of choices. That it seemed to executives like the most attractive one? Well, that’s on us, the viewers.

It’s undeniable that these channels set out to do ambitious things, and the viewing public, bit by little bit, let them know that they’d prefer to watch contrived surveillance footage of the decline of American culture. When 30 Rock made the joke about a Bravo series called Wedding Bitches wherein a woman whips a used tampon at another, not only did everyone get the reference, but undoubtedly compared it to something they’d actually already seen on that network, or one of many, many others.

I’m reminded of a scene in Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearen doodle In The Bleak Midwinter (retitled A Midwinter’s Tale in the States) where impoverished, dispirited actor Michael Maloney has brought together a cast of well-meaning eccentrics to put on a production of Hamlet in a condemned church. Purportedly a bid to save said church, but actually Maloney’s attempt to salvage the ragged remnants of his artistic soul. The production suffers one calamity after another until he finally snaps, despairing, “Churches close and theaters close, because ultimately, people don’t want them.” Being a fiction, everyone pulls together and the story stumbles to a realistically hopeful ending, promising the continuation of the troupe’s dreams of artistic integrity and gainful employment. It’s a good little movie, in which artistic integrity triumphs—if merely in the small, seemingly inconsequential way of such things—over the forces of commerce.

I understand if you haven’t seen it, though. It’s the sort of thing that might have popped up on the Arts And Entertainment Network once upon a time.

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