American cable channels have blended into an indistinguishable swamp of reality TV

These guys have no ambivalence about their identity.
These guys have no ambivalence about their identity.
Image: AP Photo/Mike Stone
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Yesterday, the American cable channel TLC announced that it changed its tagline to “Everyone needs a little TLC.” On its own, that’s not at all remarkable. But it’s the first time that TLC has used the popular meaning of its acronym (“tender loving care”), and it further distances the network from its original name—The Learning Channel.

Education has become scarce on the network. The shows are vaguely strung together around the theme of ”family life,” and include reality series such as Cake Boss (as well as one of the most detestable programs on television). All vestiges of TLC’s previous identity—it was first founded by the US government in the 1970s and was long devoted to educational documentaries—are gone.

TLC is not the only one abandoning its roots. Dozens of basic cable networks no longer adhere to any core identity or defined genre of programming. MTV (which stood at one time for “Music Television”) infamously airs very little music programming. Two of the most popular shows on The History Channel (now just called History) are Pawn Stars and Ice Road Truckers. Animal Planet’s most watched program last year was a pseudoscience “mocudrama” on mermaids.

And therein lies the problem: the shows that score cable networks the best ratings are often the ones that have little to no connection with the channel’s original mission or theme.

Pawn Stars
Are they filming ‘Pawn Stars’ or ‘Hardcore Pawn?’
Image: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

The loss of channels’ identities began largely when American reality television boomed in the early 2000s. Trying to piggyback off the gargantuan success of shows such as SurvivorBig Brother, and American Idol, cable networks began airing reality TV programming of their own. In many cases, it was difficult to create programs that both maintained some semblance of the network’s identity and also attracted lots of eyeballs.

There are, of course, exceptions—the Discovery Channel delivered its highest viewership in 12 years last year while still airing mostly science, nature, and tech-themed shows. But by and large, cable networks have abandoned their niches in an attempt to capitalize on the reality TV boom, and now America is left with lots and lots of channels that are virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Perhaps the quintessential example of this phenomenon is what happened to Court TV. For 15 years after its 1991 launch, it aired almost exclusively live trial coverage. In 2006 it was bought by Time Warner and two years later, rebranded as TruTV. Today, it has two shows about car-towing companies and is one of multiple networks to have shows about pawn shops.

A&E, which once chiefly aired documentaries and dramas, is now weighted heavily towards reality programming. Among its 15 original series, two are dramas and 13 are reality shows. Three of those 13 are different versions of Storage Wars (and did we mention that TruTV and Spike also have storage shows of their own?). It’s easy to see why the channel has favored reality TV: The season two finale of the A&E scripted drama Bates Motel had 2.3 million viewers, while the most recent season finale of Duck Dynasty, which follows a family of loud-mouthed Louisiana entrepreneurs (pictured at the top), drew 6 million.

Some cable networks, like AMC, have managed to avoid this relentless trend by committing to acclaimed original dramas, such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But even they are not completely immune to the reality boom: AMC’s reality show Small Town Security is generic enough to air on any of dozens of other cable channels.