TCA Journal No. 1: It's End of Days in the Land of Cable

We're fast approaching a moment when entire cable channels — not just their shows — will unravel.
Courtesy of Pivot
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Chief TV critic Tim Goodman will be writing these journal entries about the winter Television Critics Association press tour, offering insight, analysis, big-picture perspective and snark from the two-week event.

You might be familiar with long-told (and true) tales of refugees coming to the United States and crying inside grocery stores — the vast range of choices representing an unheard-of departure from the empty shelves and lack of selection in their home countries. You might also have heard at some point the Devo song “Freedom of Choice,” a short little ditty about possibly abusing that privilege, which ends with this refrain: “Freedom of choice/Is what you got/Freedom from choice/Is what you want.”

And that’s where we are, really, in the TV industry. Definitely faced with too many choices, sure, but as the first day of TCA starts — with four days of cable — it’s hard not to look at channels like UP, Ovation and the Outdoor Channel, which kicked things off Tuesday, and think: “How are you still in business?”

Oh, each of them can spin your head off about that. But it’s mostly about cable bundling, the decades-long concept that might finally be coming to an end. Or rather, the beginning of its end. With so many (in both the industry and consumers) pushing or pleading for change, and with streaming services making that change happen faster than anyone expected, we’re not far from the end of the way the cable industry used to do business and the beginning of some alternative that, soon enough, won’t be able to support cable channels nobody watches.

Do people watch UP? I’m sure some do. Same with Ovation, a channel I actually like and want to support since for ages it was the last real arts channel. The problem is, I rarely turn that “want” into actually watching. And clearly I'm not alone. I’m sure there’s a decent audience, at least in theory, for the Outdoor Channel. But at some point, too much choice kills, at least in the business sense. So we are right there, on that precipice of recalling all the doomed-business adages you can dream up, if that cable bundle ever comes undone.

Oh, it’s coming undone. It's not a matter of if, but of when. The question is how fast can we accurately track it unraveling right now.

So the start of the cable portion of TCA seems partly like passing a cemetery on your way to an upscale neighborhood: Discovery, Turner and others will all get here in the coming days. We’ll get AMC and BBC America, too — channels that turn out really great scripted fare but, in the case of some shows on AMC not named The Walking Dead and lots of shows on BBC America, two channels I would hate to see disappear because of their quality offerings and two channels it might be very eye-opening to see compete in an a la carte environment. I’m sure AMC would do just fine — based on zombie fans alone, but also because, like a large number of other cable channels, it’s part of a group. Under the AMC Networks umbrella you’ve got AMC, IFC, SundanceTV and WeTV — plus, AMC owns a 49 percent share in (wait for it) BBC America.

Banding together is how you survive in cable. That doesn’t mean, however, that every channel in a media empire is worth paying for or even produces programming anyone actually watches. But the odds of those channels with richer and more successful sister channels surviving the bleak future that lies before us is greater than others.

As much as I like the idea of the Science Channel, I don’t watch it that often. Same with, say, Animal Planet. But people do watch, and, more importantly, both are owned by Discovery, which isn’t going anywhere. And yet, the glut of choices is in large part related to media empires with too many channels, like Discovery (American Heroes Channel, Destination America, Discovery Life, Velocity, etc.), or NBC Universal (Chiller, Cloo); you often wonder about the math driving channel expansion (cough, bundling, cough).

Glut is glut and you can contribute to it no matter your size. It’s easy to point out the truly baffling minor entrants like Retirement Living TV, Baby TV, Jewelry Television, God TV, etc., and on down a very lengthy list of the obscure and seemingly redundant or unnecessary.

But raise your hand if you watch any of these channels regularly (not occasionally, not one time two years ago because of a story you read online about one of their shows, but regularly every week): Ion, Reelz, truTV, Aspire, Pop, TV One, Cooking Channel, DIY, FYI, QVC, GSN, Boomerang, CSPAN, Chiller, Cloo, Disney Channel Jr., Disney XD, El Rey, Esquire, FYI, Fuse, NASA TV, Pivot?

That’s a small and random selection of decently sized channels. I’ve watched a show here and there on some of them. But when I do — like Fortitude on Pivot or Manhattan on WGN America — I worry that good dramas aren’t being seen because too few people are tuning in. Outside of television critics, almost nobody at a party can be found talking about Fortitude or Manhattan.

It’s not always a value judgment on content. It’s just habit. It’s just other, better choices. I know there are shows on Spike or Esquire that I might like, but I never watch them or find them. I think more people should watch El Rey, including myself. And that’s the point really with freedom of choice — it eventually produces freedom from choice.

Maybe you hear anecdotally about people watching certain channels. Maybe you never, ever hear about anyone watching certain channels. Maybe you pay for a bunch of channels you’re not watching. Too much choice can’t be sustained. It dulls our capacity to stay interested, to even be aware. It’s a downward spiral that ends in rubble and dross.

Which is to say, welcome to TCA, cable participants!

But seriously, there’s an end, right? I may not feel inclined to find out what UP or the Outdoor Channel have planned because in my mind and on my cable guide they are already dead. And I’ll go to the WGN America panels for its two newest series even though I could barely convince anyone to watch its very best show. At some point, attending these sessions has more to do with failure analysis than anything else. A lot of the fringe shows of dubious quality on some of these channels simply won’t make it — we’ve all known that, given our fascination with Peak TV. But we’re fast approaching a time when entire cable channels, not just their shows, won’t make it. Pull up a chair to the end of days.


Twitter: @BastardMachine