The increasing demand for cable television content means the rise of 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.
First up: WealthTV, a network devoted solely to the lifestyles of the rich and easily amused.
The channel: The San Diego-based WealthTV was launched in 2004 as the first broadcast endeavor by self-made technology tycoon Robert Herring, who made headlines in 2005 when he offered $1 million to Terri Schiavo’s husband to keep his brain-damaged wife on her feeding tube. That gesture of supposed philanthropy couched in the form of a crass rich-guy stunt captures WealthTV’s strange dichotomy fairly well. It’s a network devoted to the expensive hobbies enjoyed by the nation’s wealthiest, yet it’s also seemingly aware that those people are likely too busy enjoying them to be watching basic cable. Ergo, it promises “vicarious living at its very best,” something that Herring condescendingly claims will provide “inspiration” to everyone else. In fact, Herring has said that the “wealth” in WealthTV actually has nothing to do with money, but rather its more general definition as “an abundance of good.”
What WealthTV does not have in abundance are subscribers, with broadcasts in approximately 10 million homes via just over 100 cable providers, many of which are unable to provide the high definition WealthTV prides itself on. (As you’ll learn from watching WealthTV, appearance is often everything.) Some of this scarcity could be blamed on its rejection by Time Warner Cable, something the network has spent half of its life protesting: In 2007, Herring filed an (eventually denied) FCC grievance against Time Warner claiming that, after it had passed on carrying WealthTV, the provider had engaged in the cable-TV equivalent of peddling a “Louie Vitton” purse on the sidewalks and created its own “inferior knock-off,” the now-defunct MOJO. Last year, WealthTV filed a similar complaint decrying the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal, attempting to force the FCC to deny the venture until Comcast promised to carry “all established independent networks.” When technology blog Engadget ripped on WealthTV for its Time Warner complaint, in the process calling it “the worst channel ever,” Herring responded with a press release that tellingly characterized WealthTV as a “small family-owned independent channel—albeit one housed in a “40,000 square foot, high definition state-of-the-art facility”—which says a lot about WealthTV’s self-perception as an underdog despite being run by and for the fat cats, a delusional philosophy that underscores almost everything it airs.
Target audience: Although Herring himself says he views WealthTV as a family-oriented channel, its official target audience is the “active affluent male, 25 to 49 demographic”—ostensibly those who have amassed a considerable amount of money, but not as the result of a lifetime of hard work that would render them too old or exhausted to do anything with it. That it’s pitched almost exclusively at younger rich men (or at least, men who aspire to be rich) is borne out by constant reinforcements that it’s nothin’ but class, such as its bathing every single one of its in-house promo bumpers in platinum and gold. But it’s way more obvious in another aspect: WealthTV is almost exclusively staffed by pretty, young women, interchangeable catalog models and smiley broadcast journalism graduates whose ingratiating presence reminds viewers of that other goal of financial success. (It’s very much a Donald Trump vision of class.) Consider this commercial starring model Daphne Joy, which runs on other channels as an introduction to WealthTV and conveys both everything and nothing about the network.
Interestingly, the limited ads on WealthTV itself are almost all geared at women—ostensibly that same sort of “damn”-evoking arm candy, all of whom should be worried about getting fat and losing their sweet setup. WealthTV’s commercials are nearly exclusively for things like the Shake Weight and Flirty Girl Fitness, an exercise DVD that encourages women to work off those extra pounds by “unleashing your inner diva” and emulating the tried-and-true calisthenics of strippers. If you want to catch the attention of the “active affluent male,” after all, you better look your best.
What’s on: It’s ironic, then, that everything about WealthTV looks so incredibly cheap: Although it prides itself on providing high-definition and, more recently, 3-D programming, its dedication to image quality would be more impressive if it had the content to make the effort worthwhile. As it is, only about 30 to 40 percent of WealthTV’s content is done in-house; the rest is padded out with syndicated travel shows, many of them a good three to four years old, seemingly bought in bulk from various Canadian networks and then programmed at random throughout the week. Its indebtedness to the Great White North is such that the station recently threw all of its weight behind mounting a 3-D broadcast of a concert from Doc Walker, “the hardest working country band in Canada,” despite the fact that a hard-working Canadian country band would have seemingly fuck all to do with the WealthTV brand.
But then, that could also be said about some the network’s other programming choices, a grab-bag of leftover flotsam presumably bought on the cheap that includes basic-cable staple movies like The Natural and Look Who’s Talking Too, films whose connections to the affluent lifestyle begin and end with the actors in them. (At least 1998’s Les Miserables, also featured in the channel’s Saturday movie series, concerns a poor ex-convict turned self-made industrialist, which is something.) Even more baffling, however, is the choice for its sole foray into scripted television: Reruns of The Ellen Show, the quickly cancelled, Mitchell Hurwitz co-created sitcom starring Ellen DeGeneres as a failed Internet entrepreneur who retreats to her small hometown and takes a job at her old high school. It’s very much the opposite of WealthTV’s mission statement of exploring all the best that the world has to offer, but hey, no one else wanted to run it and it’s great for filling 30 minutes, so it pops up here and there. Of course, these bizarre one-offs function as a palate-cleansing sorbet to the surfeit of bland that is the bulk of WealthTV’s original programming, nearly all of which is dedicated to gawking appreciatively at things.
The viewing week: If the world is your luxury hotel, then WealthTV is the in-room hospitality channel, offering wall-to-wall travelogues of exotic destinations and exciting entertainments all rendered soporifically dull through public-access production values and no discernible point of view beyond “look at this thing.” That lack of identity extends to the shows themselves: There’s virtually nothing to distinguish an episode of Planet Luxury from Let’s Shop from Envy from Top Travel from Takeoff—all of which involve heading to a big city and exploring the local sightseeing, shopping, cuisine, and nightlife in gushing tones—except the personalities (or lack thereof) of their respective presenters.
Envy, for example, is hosted by flirty model and B-movie actress Hayley Verlyn, whose travels tend to involve her goofing around amiably and asking teasing questions of the guys trying to show her how to skydive while trying not to make it obvious how hard they’re hitting on her. Verlyn’s easygoing girlishness is markedly different from the regal airs of former interior designer Cheryll Gillespie, host of Let’s Shop and a woman whose “pursuit of perfection…true to the Virgo sign” (as her bio helpfully explains) mostly involves putting shopkeepers through their paces while the audience watches her try on ridiculously expensive clothes.
One bubbly and ingratiating, the other emitting an intangible air of snooty disapproval, Verlyn and Gillespie seem to represent the polar extremes of the WealthTV woman (and, perhaps, the wealthy woman). More common to the network is the wide-eyed type whose job it is to stand around and be easily impressed—such as Caitlin Kay, another petite blonde whose job as occasional host of Palatial Passport, which explores the world’s most luxurious estates, is reduced to her saying things like, “Tell us about this bathroom” and then remarking, “Wow!” indulgently and repeatedly. (She says it so often that Palatial Passport may as well be named “Wow,” except WealthTV already has a show called WOW!)
To be fair, not every travel show is about seeking out and gazing slack-jawed at opulence: Karma Trekkers, led by sensitively bearded British actor Damon Redfern, takes pains to point out that it is a “spiritual” quest, which involves Redfern traveling beyond the safe perimeters of the tourist district and often engaging indigenous people in discussions about the nature of God. It’s a bit pretentious—many an episode features a shot of Redfern staring pensively into the sunset and writing presumably meaningful things in his leather-bound journal—but its willingness to address issues like poverty and political turmoil makes it stand out from the network’s other sipping-martinis-seaside shows. Of course, it’s often followed immediately by a special on, say, where to eat the world’s most expensive cake.
Similarly, GlobeRiders attempts to provide its own cultural and historical balance to WealthTV’s resort-minded fare by actually exploring the off-the-beaten path, often-poverty-stricken towns outside a foreign country’s main centers. Of course, that exploration is really just two dudes on motorcycles rumbling through said towns, where they take a few pictures and then speed off in the opposite direction, but at least they’re getting it on camera.
Far more productive is Giving Back, a show dedicated to acts of philanthropy and charitable causes like Kids Corps and the Frank Sinatra Golf Invitational, giving its affluent viewers the most obvious reminder that it is perhaps morally incumbent on them to share the wealth. It is almost never on.
In addition to exploring the great outdoors, WealthTV is also about nourishing the inner life—stirring the soul with programs devoted to classical music, and tempting the senses with suggestions for enjoying gourmet food and wine that only the very few can afford, as with shows like Culinary Travels, Healthy Gourmet, Divine Life, and the slightly homoerotic chefs-on-vacation reality show Boys Weekend. But it does so most explicitly through instructional shows like Etiquette 101, which offers useful tips like how to “dress to the nines” for formal events, date people and then marry them properly, even how to play sports in deference to your status. It’s the sort of valuable information applicable to people of any social standing, such as hiring a multiethnic dance troupe to entertain at your next holiday formal so as to be sensitive to all cultures.
Similarly, shows such as Deal Flow and Self Made are meant to spark the viewer’s own entrepreneurial spirit—Deal Flow by examining the pros and cons of, say, investing in rare metals, should you have the capital to be thinking of doing that, and Self Made by exploring how people such as Patti Stanger, a.k.a. The Millionaire Matchmaker, managed to build their own empires. These would seem to acknowledge WealthTV’s mission statement that “wealth” isn’t simply about assets, but building the character required to enjoy them.
Signature show: Of course, WealthTV’s signature shows—the Wealth On… series, which includes Wealth On Wheels, Wealth In The Air, Wealth On The Water, and even Wealth On Art—exclusively are all about assets, from custom-made sports cars to private jets (which it refers to as “business tools”) to luxury yachts. And why not? After all, this is precisely what one would expect from a network called WealthTV: wall-to-wall shots of things only the rich can afford and would thus be in the market for, while everyone else is given something to drool over as a form of “inspiration.” Oddly, the Wealth On perspective extends to areas one wouldn’t exactly expect—like Wealth On Health, for example, which talks to doctors and scientists about various medical breakthroughs, almost all of which have something to do with stem cell research, for some reason.
And because there is apparently no area of interest that cannot be filtered through the protective, cordoned-off bubble of WealthTV, the network even has its very own news program hosted by former Southern California anchorman-turned-technology-entrepreneur-turned-anchorman-again Graham Ledger, who delivers all of the most pressing, potentially travel-affecting stories of the day as borrowed from Reuters field reporters. Ledger also occasionally hosts the weekly series Wealth At The Movies, but more often the job falls to fellow utility player Ann Franken, who reads off a brief synopsis of a movie opening that week followed by its trailer in entirety. Like WealthTV’s travel programs, both shows add little in the way of new information or perspective, existing only to negate the need for viewers to turn to another network.
Of course, the show that Wealth TV will soon be most identified with is also its newest: In Social With Danielle Staub, the unstable, ousted Real Housewives Of New Jersey star creates further distance from those debasing allegations that she is a “prostitution whore” by surrounding herself with nothing but glamour—specifically the “general fabulousness” that is her everyday lifestyle of visiting the homes of well-off friends and attending lavish parties. Snapping up one of reality TV’s most hated (or “controversial,” as the network puts it) personalities has already paid off in some of WealthTV’s widest exposure, which means Herring’s “small, family-owned” business may soon get some of the big-league attention it craves. Unfortunately, it will be as “the network that gave Danielle Staub another show.”
Defining personality: It’s sort of a shame that Staub’s Botoxed perma-smirk will soon be WealthTV’s most recognizable face, considering that as of right now the network is almost entirely carried on the perky shoulders of one Ashley Colburn, the official host and producer of WOW!, Takeoff With Ashley Colburn, and Night Owl, and an affable pinch-hitter on Wealth In The Air, Wealth On The Water, and pretty much anything else she’s asked to do. Unlike some of her plastic counterparts, Colburn has a more earthy, girl-next-door approachability and an unflappable spunkiness that lends itself well to doing the messier stuff like deep-sea fishing and getting hit on by drunk dudes trying to get their faces on camera. Colburn has also provided WealthTV with its sole claim to prestige, winning a regional Emmy award for an edition of WOW! focused on Croatia that also made her something of a hero to that country.
WealthTV’s definitive male voice is provided by Terry Wilson, a former radio DJ and fifth-degree black belt in karate whose résumé includes directing martial arts and kickboxing competitions for TV, working as a bureau chief for CNN in Micronesia, and hosting a karaoke show for a Fox affiliate in Dallas. Now, of course, he’s the affable, avuncular guy with the Frankie Avalon coiffure and comfortable slacks murmuring stuff like, “She’s a real beauty” at yachts and luxury cars on WealthTV.
Switching off: Wilson radiates an easy-to-please, stop-and-smell-the-roses sensibility—something he elucidates in one of his many promos for the network, saying, “It’s not about what we have, but what we enjoy” (which is yet another slogan). Of course, spend enough time with WealthTV, and that seems like a fairly defensive statement: The “enjoying” on WealthTV is inextricable from the “having,” whether it’s the finest in food or fashion, the latest gadgets, or simply the time and means to always feel pampered whether you’re in Saint-Tropez or South Africa. No matter what Herring says, there’s far more aspiration than inspiration on WealthTV—but even though the sort of aspirations it lays out are achievable only by a tiny minority, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “vicarious living” or the tease of overindulgence. What’s notable about WealthTV, however, is that its own cheapness manages to make all of those champagne wishes and caviar dreams look banal and hollow. Still, considering how much television at large fuels unrealistic expectations of fame and fortune, perhaps making wealth look so off-putting and boring is WealthTV’s greatest contribution to our culture.
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