TCA Journal No. 4: Lost In the Cable Supermarket

How many niche channels are really necessary or sustainable?
Courtesy of WGN America
Have you seen this show?

At the end of January, a series that's starting to generate buzz — which is likely to get a lot louder, with pounding drums — will make its premiere.

On Pivot.

That might be problematic in the sense that, "What's Pivot?" is the normal response to that. And once told Pivot is an actual, functioning cable channel, the next response is, "Do I get that?" followed by "How can I find it" and "Any chance the show will end up on HBO?"

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Imagine that you're WGN America, which is a pretty big deal for our intents and purposes here. When the channel did Salem, interest in the zeitgeist nudged up a bit, and a certain portion of the viewing audience put on their reading glasses and muttered, "WGN, WGN, W...where the hell is this thing? Hey, look, we get theWeatherNation channel!" But WGN's next offering, the critically-acclaimed Manhattan really spiked awareness, which lead people to really try to find it, which is a form of progress not as sad as it sounds.

So, you see where Pivot is in the hierarchy part of this story.

After a mere three days of the cable portion of the TCA press tour, we've had panels from channels people watch regularly (TLC, Lifetime, HBO, Discovery, and Starz) and, no offense to their scratch-it-out existence, Science Chanel, National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo Wild, Investigation Discovery, Destination America, Discovery Life, American Heroes Channel, Pop and TV One. Oh, and lunch from Revolt.

This year a recurring theme at the cable portion is the overall declining ratings plaguing everyone. Part of this is easily traced back to the fact that there are now more cable channels than blades of grass at a well-manicured suburban home. People in those suburban homes also pretty much have no idea what cable channels they are paying for.

For many people, that amplitude is overwhelming, so they just clamp down on the scroll button and watch hundreds of channels fly by until they get to CNN or ESPN or HBO. The great unwashed never get glanced upon, like dirty Dickensian children. And so you have to worry about the fate of Fortitude and lots of other series, many good enough to earn your attention, that are so desperately trying to be part of this TV Renaissance we're all yapping about.

Everybody wants in the game but the game has too many players.

Which makes you wonder when the real panic is going to kick in. That 500 channel universe is pretty much here. And it comes at a time when loads of people are annoyed at their cable or satellite bills and those people don't really want Pop or Revolt or Pivot or Jimmy's Donut Channel or Create Your Own Cable Name And Be Astonished That It Already Exists Since 2008 (and is introducing a scripted series this season).

I'll say it again: People are at the point where they don't want freedom of choice. (At least not that much choice.) Like Devo, they want freedom from choice.

What they really want is a la carte cable. But we all want things we can't have.

No, the Big Picture worry beyond whether really good shows like Manhattan or Fortitude can ever be found amidst the rubble, is when will the rubble be winnowed into sand? I mean, Discovery Channels MegaCorp has all the money in the world and if one of its egregious channels isn't doing well it gets slapped with a coat of paint and a name change, but most others can't do that.

At some point -- right? -- many of these channels will cease to exist. What may hasten their demise is a growing American viewer discontent with and disinterest in hillbillies, ice road truckers, trashy little dancers, awful moms, spoiled 16-year-olds, food shows where chefs are one step short of eating their own fingers and any show where the primary attraction is people doing jobs that are either more repulsive than your own or require them to have a near-death experience as a normal workday.

Once the weariness settles in and these shows lose audiences completely, the smaller niche cable channels propping them up will implode.

But that's just a guess masquerading as a hope. I've lost the willpower to "channel surf" because it takes so damn long to get through what I'm paying for, I could have watched half a season of Fortitude in the time it takes to go around the horn.

Which is just a long-winded way of saying, damn, obscure little cable channels, I don't know how or why you even do it.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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