J. M. Pressley
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When Good Channels Go Bad

I am a TV geek.

While I do like my share of sitcoms and dramas, I remember enjoying cable specifically because I could watch Arts and Entertainment, Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and the Learning Channel. Like I said—TV geek. Somewhere along the line, I decided that I needed to offset the sheer entertainment factor of television with a balance of programming from which I could actually learn something.

In those heady, halcyon days before premium and specialty niche channels began popping up, I remember being able to spend entire evenings watching a variety of programming. I could watch an hour on ancient Egypt, followed by a Civil War docudrama, perhaps topped off with a deep-sea exploration of some shipwreck or another. As an educated man with a variety of interests, this programming greatly appealed to me.

Now, as I flip through these channels that I once lingered over, I have to ask what the hell happened? A&E is enamored with true crime, I can barely watch Discovery, I don't even bother to check in with "TLC: Life Unscripted," and even my favorite out of the bunch, the History Channel, is beginning to disappoint on a more frequent basis. My tastes haven't changed. The programming, however, has altered radically. In fact, it wouldn't be overstating the case to say that most of these channels have betrayed their original missions.

Arts and Entertainment

Ah, I can remember back to the days when A&E stood for "Arts and Entertainment." One of the oldest cable niche channels, A&E set high standards with their original programming, starting with Biography and including quality productions of Tom Jones, Pride and Prejudice, and Ivanhoe, among others. Somewhere along the line, however, the programmers must have mistaken the A&E for "Assaults and Executions." City Confidential? Cold Case Files? When did A&E decide to compete with Court TV? A glance at the June 27, 2004 prime time programming schedule could leave anyone expecting arts or entertainment disappointed (all times CDT):

Day 7:00 7:30 8:00 8:30 9:00 9:30
Sunday Cleavage: Mankind's fascination with breasts and cleavage The Celebrity Hot 100 of Forbes
Monday Who Killed Laci Peterson? Family Plots Family Plots Airline Airline UK
Tuesday Cold Case Files Biography: Traci Lords
Wednesday Biography: John Wayne American Justice American Justice
Thursday Cold Case Files The First 48: Body in the Park
Friday Biography: Sam Giancana Biography: Sammy "The Bull" Gravano Biography: Henry Hill, Goodfella
Saturday American Justice Cold Case Files City Confidential

Well, let me be the first to congratulate A&E on the following statistics for a prime time week of 21 hours:

Although I wouldn't think it possible, A&E is beginning to make me hate Bill Kurtis. If I wanted to sit through that much true crime, I'd never turn the channel from CNN, thank you very much. I'm thinking the "art of entertainment" is becoming a lost one, frankly. So much for A&E that week.

Discovery Channel

Discovery Channel used to be a place for science programming. Now? I've come to distrust any show that has "American" or "Monster" in its title, whether it's on Discovery or not. Maybe I'd find the channel more appealing if I had a hard-on for tattooed biker slobs wielding arc torches, or perhaps if I had a frontal lobotomy. Disappointment is too nice a word when I look at the programming for the week of June 27, 2004 (all times CDT):

Day 7:00 7:30 8:00 8:30 9:00 9:30
Sunday Great Biker Build-Off Great Biker Build-Off Great Biker Build-Off
Monday Monster House Monster Garage American Chopper
Tuesday The FBI Files Big: Motorcycle 2 MythBusters
Wednesday Sucking Amps Mega-Excavators Great Biker Build-Off
Thursday Fear at First Bite Hunting Nazis Stomachs of Steel
Friday American Casino American Chopper American Hot Rod
Saturday The New Detectives The FBI Files The FBI Files

Who was the genius that figured anybody wanted to watch six hours' worth of guys building motorcycles? And thank God they've given me the option of watching true crime all Saturday night; I was afraid I'd have to watch A&E for that. The only discovery I've made lately is that there are other channels from which to choose. Do me a favor and wake me when they run another Walking with Dinosaurs. Zzzzzzzz.

History Channel

At least the History Channel is still retaining some semblance of its name in its programming. I can fondly recall the days when my wife used to call it "the Hitler Channel." To be sure, there was once an overabundance of WWII programming, but what are you going to do with all that footage of Stukas, anyway? The only problem that I've seen recently is their penchant for re-running nearly everything under the title Modern Marvels and the recent techno-industrial slant given to their programming (Modern Marvels: Earth Movers! Modern Marvels: Power Tools! Modern Marvels: Gadgets! etc.).

I'd also like to take a moment to chide the History Channel for moving away from 24-hour programming to 22-hour programming. I just hate the infomercials because now they remind me more of the other aforementioned channels. But let's see what they're doing in prime-time, when they're not broadcasting paid announcements (again, the week beginning June 27):

Day 7:00 7:30 8:00 8:30 9:00 9:30
Sunday Stealth & Beyond Stealth & Beyond Mail Call Mail Call
Monday Iraq's Factions Band of Brothers We Stand Alone Together (9:15)
Tuesday Tactical to Practical Tech Effect Mail Call Wild West Tech
Wednesday Modern Marvels: High Voltage Modern Marvels: Ice Road Truckers Modern Marvels: Logging Tech
Thursday Rumrunners, Moonshiners, and Bootleggers Modern Marvels: Dangerous Cargo
Friday The Aircraft Carrier A-10 Tankbuster Nighthawk Stealth
Saturday The SS The SS Mail Call Tech Effect

On the one hand, I'd like to have a heart-to-heart with the program directors about slapping the word "tech" on nearly every new show they're doing. On the other hand, at least the History Channel isn't doing a dating or fashion reality series and calling it educational. And I can't complain much about the recent lack of Arthur Kent showing up on the channel, or the coup that they recently scored by licensing Band of Brothers from HBO. Still, I find myself concerned about the trend toward technology documentaries, and I hope that they could more often return to programs like Founding Fathers.


Just for fun, try to remember what TLC stood for (before they started using only the acronym). Anybody? How about "The Learning Channel?" I seem to recall—before they started brandishing the slogan "Life Unscripted"—when it served a purpose. I remember weekends where they would run the Great Books marathon. I remember when I could see a show on Egypt, or astronomy, or history. In short, I remember when they would run shows that had some intrinsic learning value. So, what's on the week of June 27?

Day 7:00 7:30 8:00 8:30 9:00 9:30
Sunday Trading Spaces Trading Spaces Faking It
Monday Trauma - Life in the ER Medical Stories Stories from the O.R.
Tuesday Mega Machines Overhaulin' Rides
Wednesday What Not to Wear For Better or Worse Clean Sweep
Thursday Forensic Science Mysteries/Noah's Flood King Arthur
Friday While You Were Out While You Were Out What Not to Wear
Saturday Clean Sweep Trading Spaces Trading Spaces

Hmmnnn. Must be a slow week; they're only running four hours of Trading Spaces, and what, no Date Patrol? They have also stunned me for the first time in months by running back-to-back programs of interest on Thursday evening. That said, I still believe they should change their slogan from "Life Unscripted" to "Time Wasted." I get pissed just glancing at their programming guide.

For This I Got Cable?

The point is that all these channels once existed for distinct purposes. A&E, Discovery, and TLC have abandoned their purposes—in the case of the erstwhile Learning Channel, trodden upon it—and the History Channel is treading a fine line while shifting some of its more traditional programming to History International (for an additional fee). It's disturbing to me that even basic cable networks have evidently become so beholden to advertisers and the lowest common denominator of what passes for mass entertainment these days that it's impossible to escape mind-numbing reality programming. If I wanted to turn my brain off, I'd snip the damn cable and go back to watching network television. As a TV geek, I realize that my views can't possibly be in the majority; if they were, I wouldn't be writing protest essays about how the networks have changed so much. But the reduction or outright loss of insightful, educational programming on the very networks created expressly for that genre is a loss worth lamenting—even if the dumbing down that has occurred means we lack the capacity to grasp what we've lost.

Now if you'll pardon me, I'm tuning into PBS to watch Rebels and Redcoats. At least PBS is still attempting to keep to its mission. Then again, they rely on foundation grants and direct pledges from their audience. Something to think about.

J. M. Pressley Home