The increasing demand for cable television content means the rise of more and more specialized networks to fill that vast, ever-expanding bandwidth. Interested in watching only programming that caters to your interest in professional horseracing, lawn-and-garden maintenance, or the specific sensibilities of Oprah Winfrey? There are now entire channels devoted to nothing but—all self-contained ecosystems existing far beyond the perimeter of mainstream TV, all populated by foreign civilizations of personalities harboring their own unique languages, value systems, and ideas of what constitutes entertainment. Most of these go completely undiscovered, happened upon only by an accidental slip of the remote and quickly fled after an exclamation of “What the hell am I watching?” TV Outland cuts a machete-swath through the TV thickets, and explores the strange indigenous tribes living just out of sight on your cable package.
The channel: On the air since 2007, ION Life represents the “lifestyle” division of ION Media Networks, the self-proclaimed “largest broadcast television group in the U.S.”—a boast that becomes slightly less impressive when you actually consider its programming. Initially launched as PAX TV (named for its creator, Home Shopping Network co-founder Lowell “Bud” Paxson), the ION network has long struggled with its identity, initially splitting its time between Christian broadcasting and reruns of family-oriented shows like Highway To Heaven and Touched By An Angel, then transitioning into the modestly named i, a channel so heavy on paid programming it was mockingly referred to as “Infomercial TV.”
When it finally became ION, its ambitions never got much higher, essentially serving as a dumping ground for ’80s sitcoms like Who’s The Boss? and Growing Pains and various third- or fourth-run feature films. On today’s ION flagship station, only the reruns have changed, with newer shows like Boston Legal and NCIS swapped in as syndication deals of old have ended. But along with the kids’ channel Qubo, ION Life represents the ION group’s first real attempts at creating a sense of purpose beyond just providing an afterlife for Reba.
And “purpose” is definitely ION Life’s watchword: It’s “dedicated to promoting active lifestyles, personal growth and wellness,” seeking out viewers with interests in staying fit and living green—even though you’d think those people would be too busy kayaking and tending to their sustainable farms to watch basic cable. But ostensibly ION Life is meant for their rare moments of downtime, or it’s intended to encourage viewers to become so involved in improving their lives that they won’t have time to watch it—or any television—anymore.
Target audience: Unlike some of the other networks we’ve covered in TV Outland, ION Life doesn’t have a specific demographic it’s chasing, offering itself up to any basic cable-watcher who’s interested in pursuing an “active lifestyle,” no matter how counterintuitive that may seem. However, given that the bulk of its programming is hosted by women—and women who make a point of suggesting they’re doing things that perhaps men don’t think they can do, those stupid men—it’s fairly obvious that it has a primarily female audience in mind. This is borne out somewhat by ION Life’s advertising, which is entirely made up of ads and infomercials for 1-800 services and mail-order products such as the Shake Weight, Stem Cell Therapy Wrinkle Cream, and Zestra (America’s most-recommended herbal “arousal oil” for women—as seen on Dr. Oz).
Tellingly, the rare ads not exclusively targeted at women are for things like hair replacement, retirement plans, and a wholesaler claiming to be “the nation’s most reliable source for catheters”—in other words, not exactly the sort of things sought by people who would probably lead an “active lifestyle.” That these are joined by commercials for quick-fix home workout machines and stop-smoking remedies suggests any audience interest in pursuing health and wellness is most likely aspirational.
What’s on: That also goes for ION Life itself, as the great irony of its promotion of an “active lifestyle” is that nearly everything about it is dead: Lacking any in-house original programming, it relies exclusively on syndicated shows—most of them imported from Canada, many of which ended their runs four to five years ago. Even odder, ION Life is infamous for never airing the entire runs of the few shows it owns, often broadcasting the same handful of episodes over and over again, often within the same week.
If you were feeling generous (or sarcastic), you could say this fervent recycling is part of ION Life’s commitment to being environmentally conscious. Yet there’s no getting around the fact that ION Life is essentially a cheap reality-TV repository, much as its parent network is where all the little-loved scripted shows go when they die. And for a station that’s all about “living with a purpose,” its own reason for being becomes even cloudier when it routinely preempts its lifestyle programming for reruns of Canadian Coast Guard drama The Guard or the long-canceled courtroom show Texas Justice, or random movies like The Nutty Professor or Death Wish II. (Although I suppose taking out street punks is its own sort of purposeful living.)
But as ION Life will teach you, we’re just focusing on the negative here. The casual viewer who ignores that bigger picture—and the original airdates, and all those obvious Canadian accents—will find a channel that strives to best every other lifestyle network by copying them all, with programming divided into categories of “Design And Décor,” “Diet And Nutrition,” “Exercise And Fitness,” “Health And Wellness,” “Travel And Adventure,” “Sports,” and the miscellaneous catchall “Personal Best.” Of course, at present, none of the shows under “Health,” “Sports,” or “Travel” are currently on the air, but in theory, at least, ION Life aims to foster a well-rounded you—essentially an in-house life coach that never, ever stops pushing you toward personal improvement. Except when it’s time for Death Wish II.
The viewing week: Sadly, even these broadly generalized categories are mostly just wishful thinking: Currently two of the three “Design And Décor” shows, for example, don’t have much to do with either topic. The five members of My Green House’s Green Team—whose applicable environmental skills range from studying wetlands preservation to being a “professional high jumper”—likely wouldn’t argue that point. After all, their mission to lessen the carbon footprints of random homeowners has much less to do with form than function; no one is going to classify a low-flow toilet or compost heap as a “design choice.” If My Green House has anything in common with the typical home-design show, it’s that it basically serves to scold with a smile, whether it’s making its subjects feel guilty for taking hot showers or implying that they’re poisoning their kids—and the Earth!—by buying them anything other than clunky, “natural” wooden toys.
Its fellow Canadian import Junk Raiders takes a similarly environmentally conscious tack, taking seven strangers from two diametrically opposed lifestyles—Dumpster-diving “freecyclers” and home-improvement crew “wasters”—and challenging them to turn a Toronto steel factory into upscale lofts using only scavenged items and a $5,000 budget. While it’s possible some viewers may be inspired to embark on their own Dumpster-diving adventures, and similarly turn found objects into furniture or works of art, it seems more likely that viewers will catch on to the show’s subtle mockery of the “freecyclers,” who tend to forego showers and routinely eat “perfectly good meat” out of the garbage. It doesn’t help that Junk Raiders, like any other Real World-style reality show, thrives off of tension, so it often plays up the exasperation of the all the non-freecyclers as they grow increasingly pissed about all the rotten materials they’re forced to work with.
Making the most of a limited budget is also the premise of She’s Crafty, a DIY design show for those with limited skills and lowered expectations. Hosted by the self-consciously quirky Wendy Russell, the HGTV Canada castoff employs a “waste not, want not strategy” that borders on hoarding: Russell is always digging out thrift store and garage sale finds to repurpose, like taking dozens of hideous dinner plates and making them slightly less hideous with a new porcelain glaze, or transforming two old bedside tables into a vanity by screwing them together with a hinged mirror. Her self-proclaimed “quick and dirty” philosophy is matched by the show’s relentless, cheesy rock soundtrack and Russell’s frequent, dubious exclamations of “cool!” And much as Russell is the first (and often only) person to laugh at her jokes, her resultant craft projects are unlikely to impress anyone but the most indulgent of your friends. Still, Russell is honest enough to admit when something she’s done is complete crap, and that alone makes her the most likable personality on the entire network.
There’s absolutely nothing “quick and dirty” about ION Life’s “Diet And Nutrition” programming, as everything about it requires endless time and preparation—and not least of all, money. Bringing It Home, for example, focuses on farm-to-table cooking, a growing trend that is nevertheless the privilege of those who have the means to enjoy it. As a celebration of all farm-to-table has to offer, it’s fairly tantalizing—even though host Laura McIntosh herself is mostly bland—with some of the world’s most recognized sustainable chefs cooking meals while standing in the very farms that supply their ingredients. But if the show’s purpose is to “bring it home” and inspire you to follow along with its recipes, most viewers will just feel left out if, say, they don’t have access to locally aged gruyère.
There’s a similar sense of smug superiority pervading Gen’s Guiltless Gourmet, the cooking show highlighting meals that are “healthier for the planet, healthier for you.” As its title suggests, it revels in the same low-calorie faux-“decadence” as Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP empire—and it’s basically a D-list version hosted by a similarly willowy blond actress, Geneviere “Gen” Anderson, whose credits include bit parts on Star Trek: Enterprise and CSI: Miami, as well as the women-in-prison flick Sugar Boxx. (Tagline: “Prisoners. Hookers. Machetes… Revenge!”) Like Paltrow, Anderson has an off-putting, regal vibe that colors expressions like, “If you have fresh elderberries, you could use those in a food processor, but alas, they’re not in season,” or her routine exclamations of “Ta-da!” followed by her laughing merrily at herself. And of course, that prim demeanor extends to Anderson’s always-dainty recipes, most of which are light, vegan spins on fare like beef stroganoff or chocolate cake, paired with a variety of organic wine that Anderson inevitably deems “fabulous” (her favorite word). Nevertheless, Gen seems to have plenty of followers, as every episode seems to find her reading letters from fans. Just like Paltrow, obviously there are those who find her intentions more admirable than irritating.
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Compared to the assortment of personal trainers and nutrition experts who make up Body Fuel, both McIntosh and Anderson make healthy gourmet eating seem as easy as hitting the drive-thru. There’s nothing that so much as pretends to be beginner-friendly about Body Fuel: It’s directed exclusively at people who are obsessively, insanely serious about what they put into their bodies—which, as the title suggests, is being consumed not for pleasure, but for the necessity of supplementing their equally intense physical regimen. “Protein pancakes” made with tofu, protein powder, and blanched almond flour are about as decadent as it gets on a show where sugar is afforded approximately the same regard as rat poison, while various ripped and toned bodybuilders take turns besting each other with the lowest possible calorie counts. Even more so than ION Life’s other “Diet And Nutrition” shows, Body Fuel sets such an impossibly high standard that the only thing it seems likely to inspire in aspirational viewers is shame—which is, after all, one of the leading causes of gorging on cheeseburgers.
ION Life begins to live up to its promise of positivity when it comes to “Exercise And Fitness.” Though its early-morning Power Yoga workouts aren’t exactly intended for beginners, each episode does feature students from various skill levels, making it easy to match your own clumsy efforts to the (relatively) least-agile body on screen. And even more encouraging is the newsmagazine-style The Right Fit, which dedicates each episode to a single person’s “Work In Progress” attempt to prepare for an upcoming athletic event, such as a young woman who’s trying to get over a bad break-up by training for a triathlon. The show often falters in its attempts at irreverence—a regular segment called “Busted!” finds nutritionist Julie Daniluk “busting” people eating, for example, spicy food at a spicy food festival (if you can believe that!)—and it’s never as witty or pithy as it thinks it is. (Daniluk ends her segment by saying, “Variety might be the spice of life, but by adding a variety of spices to your life, your body will be thanking you,” as though she’s just proffered a Wildean bon mot.) Yet it focuses on giving everyday people approachable goals, and in that sense it fulfills ION Life’s mission statement.
Not surprisingly, “Personal Best” is where things get hazy, as the amorphously defined category includes everything from sticking to a budget to volunteering for charity work to just standing around gawking at electronic gizmos. It also includes some of ION Life’s most blatant rock-bottom-remainder pickups, such as reruns of Home Team—the short-lived Extreme Home Makeover copycat hosted by fired Apprentice contestant Troy McClain—and Home Delivery, essentially a kinder, gentler spin on talk shows like Maury (with which it shares an executive producer), where a group of empathetic TV personalities such as former MTV VJ John Sencio travel to various cities mediating arguments, paying for medical and cosmetic procedures people can’t afford, and otherwise “making dreams come true.” That both shows could do so much good, yet still be damned to swift cancellation truly illustrates what a cold and unfeeling god is television.
ION Life’s two more recent shows in the “Personal Best” category share a common thread in that they’re both hosted by and explicitly targeted toward young, go-getter women—the same ones who will be snapping up all those Shake Weights and herbal arousal pills, presumably. Gadget Girlz makes the biggest show out of throwing down the gender gauntlet, announcing right there in its opening, “We’re breaking new ground, gentlemen,” as though millions of dudes are at home fuming that its four female hosts are familiar with any technology beyond the microwave. Still, besides working in various areas of engineering—“the divas of technological development,” they’re dubiously christened—these women don’t exactly roar, interjecting asides about how a certain gizmo gives them “more time for household chores” and focusing on inventions like the portable Laundry Pod that just seem to reinforce the stereotypes they’re supposedly fighting.
When they step away from trying to put a female spin on things, the Girlz live up to that cutting-edge “z” in their name by introducing viewers to gadgets that range from gee-whiz prototypes of glasses that provide instant translations of foreign languages, to software that converts analog cassette tapes to digital MP3s. If Gadget Girlz never exactly breaks new ground, it at least acquits itself of its sisters-doing-it-for-themselves premise—though as with ION Life’s gourmet cooking shows, it’s difficult to see how most of the products featured are attainable enough to help viewers be their “personal best.”
Far more practical is Smart Cookies, which operates under the credo “Be smart, be rich, and be fabulous,” offering a cost-effective means toward buying the very best that life has to offer. Of course, the implicit lesson of each woman’s respective “Cookie Crusade” is also “Be overbearing”—not to mention “Be the host of a TV show”—as the five Cookies seem to get their ways through a combination of their constant, smiling insistence that “Cookies do not pay the full price” and the desire of storeowners to look extra helpful on camera. Nevertheless, you have to give it to the Cookies: Their relentless positivity gets results, and even those who don’t share their particular charms might nevertheless pick up a few useful tips, like getting the most out of price-protection plans, or always purchasing the floor model at furniture stores. You’d still be better off being perky and persistent, however.
Signature show: As Smart Cookies demonstrates, the throughline of so much of ION Life’s programming is about cultivating the right attitude—and whatever pop psychology or New Age philosophy you choose to adopt in order to foster that attitude, you’ll find it echoed in Positive Living, where getting hung up on cynical things like “facts” and “tangible results” is the burden you must rid yourself of in order to “create your most amazing life.” Featuring interviews with various self-help authors and therapists who specialize in such surely board-certified areas as “transformational wisdom,” Positive Living explores the many ways in which viewers can rid themselves of things like crippling debt and unsatisfying careers by simply believing that they will, over and over again, until it just magically happens.
Attracting financial wealth, for example, is a matter of having the attitude that being rich is your “universal birthright,” then imagining the “feeling of abundance” until suddenly you have tons of money and all of your debt disappears. Meanwhile, those who believe that their lives are hard simply aren’t listening to their “heart’s megaphone,” and once they learn to do that, they’ll find they’re living in the “miracle zone,” where everything and everyone they need shows up just when they need it most. Also, parents who worry too much about their kids will inevitably kill them with cancer—it’s all pseudo-scientific fact!
Defining personality: As you’d expect, virtually nothing about Positive Thinking is backed by logic or even communicated directly, consisting entirely of faux-profound maxims and vague questions like, “Are you getting in your own way?” It’s not surprising, then, to find that the show is hosted by a former life coach, Aida Memisevic, an ION Life MVP who also serves as executive producer of Body Fuel and Gadget Girlz.
As Memisevic proclaims in the intro to Positive Living, she created the show (and presumably everything she does for ION Life) as a way to “fulfill my greatest dream project, to bring my two loves together: television and personal development.” Practicing what she preaches, Memisevic is full of relentless positivity: Whenever her guests spout one of their platitudes, she exclaims, “I like it!” with gusto, often pointing at them emphatically as though they just elucidated a secret of the universe. Memisevic doesn’t so much interview her subjects as prop them up, leaning forward on the edge of her chair and bulldozing through softball questions, never stopping to consider whether either of them are anywhere close to making sense.
Switching off: And so ION Life, like Memisevic, really is an in-house life coach. When it promises its viewers it will help them be “the best that you can be,” it’s practicing the tried-and-true life-coach strategy of offering a vaguely defined goal with no established barometer for achieving it. It’s not that you’ll become better than you already are by attaining the rarified goals of ION Life’s gourmet, relentlessly green programming. Perhaps it’s just that you’ll learn to accept your own limitations by realizing that those goals are out of reach—or so amorphous (like this idea of “living purposefully”) that you’ll never really know when you’ve reached them.
Obviously ION Life has accepted its own limitations, else it would have expended more of an effort to overcome its humble beginnings as a home for syndicated slurry and ads for Tony Robbins seminars, instead of just combining those two sensibilities. But as with working with a life coach, setting goals seems to be the whole point—not the whys and wherefores of actually getting there. Most important of all, “success” is entirely relative. So if merely having the goal of “living positively” is enough, then by its own philosophy, ION Life is a success. By any other measure, of course, it’s mostly just a self-deluded mess.
Up next: TV Outland goes dark for the summer, but we’ll return in the fall with all new episodes.