Extreme Channel Makeover 

11 September 2010 tbs.pm/2250

Everyone said it wouldn’t last. They were right. The Fox Reality Channel had a good run; they were able to capitalize on the endless stream of unscripted television shows, airing repeats of reality formats from around the world, shooting off a few of their own original series, and airing “classic” syndicated series such as Real Stories of the Highway Patrol and Blind Date. Fox Reality lasted for almost five years.

Then in March 2010 they downed tools and became NatGeo WILD, an offshoot of the National Geographic Channel. Instead of fat people prancing about to earn a salad, there’s now monkeys rolling down hills and foraging fleas off each other. Quite a change, no?


The multichannel universe has become so crowded that channels aren’t so much added as they are taking over existing spots. This is either done as an outright takeover, as NatGeo WILD has done, or as a format and/or name change by its own owners, which is more common. But when you take an existing brand and try to completely alter what that name stands for, what’s to happen to your audience?


CourtTV, one of the early niche cable channels, shifted focus from live court coverage and courtroom based investigative series, to more documentary and reality-style programming. Turner Broadcasting, the channel’s owners, decided to rechristen the channel TruTV, in 2008. Court coverage does continue in minute form during a short programming block called “In Session,” but this is threatened by Turner’s announcement of adding live sports to TruTV’s roster in 2011.


Nickelodeon tinkered with its multiplex of channels throughout the 2000s. Noggin, an educational channel co-funded by the Children’s Television Workshop (producers of Sesame Street, later to rename itself Sesame Workshop), aired preschool programmes during the morning hours, and then handed over to “The N,” a teen-oriented nighttime service. Another Nick-owned channel was GaS (Games and Sports), which ran repeats of virtually every game show Nickelodeon aired in its history 24 hours a day. Late in 2007, GaS was retired, so that Noggin and The N could become separate channels in their own right. Two years later, as part of Nickelodeon’s image makeover, Noggin was renamed “Nick Jr” and The N to “TeenNick,” further giving audiences new situations to get used to.

Before becoming the 24 hour news channel, MSNBC was the 24-hour talk show format America’s Talking. Ratings went from nearly immeasurable to record highs within weeks. The Nashville Network, TNN, changed from country music news and entertainment to more action and drama fare when Viacom literally renamed the channel “The New TNN: The National Network,” a name to conjure with. Figures plummeted, and conjure they did: within two years the channel became “SpikeTV,” after a hissy fit from Spike Lee, who sued claiming copyright infringement (the claim was laughed out of court, and rightfully so), and then shortened to “Spike” after a few more years. Spike now concerns itself with male-based programming and action movies.


Without changing names, though, but completely altering the content of the channel, networks risk losing loyal fans, and opening themselves up to the risk of closing altogether. Bravo has prevailed in this matter. Originally a highbrow, fine arts channel, Bravo shifted in the mid 2000s to all-reality, with programming that still seems more “up-market,” like Top Chef, where aspiring chefs compete for a cash prize to further their careers. Viewers responded favorably, and Bravo went rapidly from an also-rans channel to one of the most popular spots on the cable box.

TBS, another Turner network, also altered their focus around 2004. Originally introduced from Atlanta station WTBS, it was one of cable’s original “Superstations,” a local station carried nationwide, and carried news, syndicated repeats, movies and sports coverage. TBS eventually dropped the Superstation moniker in 2004 and became a round-the-clock comedy channel. Atlanta Braves games still air as part of a long-standing agreement between the baseball team and Ted Turner, but the bulk of TBS’ schedule is comedy repeats, original sitcoms, and now late-night talk: Conan O’Brien, finally off his NBC-imposed shackles, will start a new hour-long show, Monday through Thursday on TBS.


The Sci-Fi Channel, however, is meeting its plans for restructuring with trepidation by viewers. The Sci-Fi set, often known as fanatical in their devotion to the genre, threw up their hands when the channel rebranded itself last year as Syfy. Pronounced the same, the very change of the word signaled to some that a major change was in place. And it does seem that way: plans have been announced for cookery shows, non-science based movies and series, and perhaps the death knell, the third and newest home for World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Smackdown” series. How alienated will the audiences be? Will Syfy dig its own ratings grave? It’s a gray area at this point.


It’s almost guaranteed that OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, will be a hit right out of the gate, when it takes over from Discovery Health from January 2011. The niche channel currently airs medical programs and lifestyle tip shows, as will OWN, but the simple act of adding the name of She Who Turns (Almost) Everything She Touches To Gold to the channel is almost certain to bring a flock of viewers, something Discovery Health has had very, very few.

Sometimes it isn’t what you air, it’s who you air.

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