Friday, October 23, 2009

Cable Fables

The promo rolled across the to the television screen like a million others. The whine of snowmobiles; a helicopter whirling over a frozen landscape; a thumping sound track meant to convey the sense that something exciting was actually going on. And a burly chap in a flannel shirt invoking the Wasilla mantra: “It’s the last frontier.”

“Alaska State Troopers.” OK. On National Geographic Channel.

Now that’s rebranding that’s going to leave a bruise.

National Geographic. Epic stories in pictures, taken by crazy guys hanging out of small planes: The ecological fate of the Serengheti Plain. Hard life across all 11 Russian time zones. The rhythms of the Marble Mountain Wilderness. Whither the wetlands?

National Geographic, “supporting exploration, education and conservation since 1888.” National Geographic, with a magazine seemingly older than Stonehenge and its own grandiose pile of real estate located near the White House.

National Geographic Channel, now chronicling the travails of law enforcement in a setting Homer Simpson described, perhaps too harshly, as “a place where you can’t be too fat or too drunk.”

Is this what we all signed up for? When did the balloon boy’s father take charge of serious cable content?

Back in the mid-1980s, television critics (including me, then with the Chicago Tribune) were pondering the emergence of shiny new cable networks such as Bravo, A&E (Arts & Entertainment), the Discovery Channel and the History Channel.

The Learning Channel, dedicated to using the medium of television for “real education,” according to the early network propaganda, had been in place since the early 1970s when it debuted as the Appalachian Community Service Network.

You can almost hear the fiddles and the 1960s, can’t you? It became TLC in 1980.

The fashionable argument at the time was that these fledgling networks, which tossed words like “arts” around with abandon, were seen to be in the process of supplanting the need for PBS. There would be plenty of places to go now for history and ballet and public affairs programming and environmental worry-warting, or so the argument was framed.

Maybe it was effective marketing. Maybe it was fatigue with those endless “pledge drives” on public television. Maybe it was the fact that these cable outlets were billed as “commercial-free.”

Clearly a new media day was upon us, a day when arts programming and “independent” films and award-winning documentaries would flourish on cable, leaving the lowbrow sitcoms and the quiz shows to the creaky broadcast networks.

The truth is, many of these cable networks got off to respectable starts. Each of them produced quality programming and each strived to live up to their own pretentious billing. For a time.

For Bravo, the shift came around 2003 with the launch of the popular “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” followed by "Project Runway," "Top Chef" and “Showbiz Moms & Dads.” The History Channel was mocked some time ago as devolving into “The Hitler Channel.” That seems gratuitous unless you go on the channel’s website this week and see, well, Hitler. And later, “Lock N’ Load with R. Lee Ermey.”

For A&E, the heady days of the weekly "A&E Stage," with its mix of plays, documentaries and concerts, has given way to "Gene Simmons Family Jewels," "Growing Up Gotti," "Flip This House" and "King of Cars." Visit the network’s home page and Hulk Hoganesque visage of “Dog the Bounty Hunter” stares back at you.

Parsing the life cycle of TLC might better be left to the cast of Monty Python. Once the Discovery Channel acquired it in 1991, the “learning” aspect began to unwind (unless interior design shows and “Junkyard Wars” are considered learning.) It now describes itself as “an affirmative and connective experience.”

And then came the family Gosselin, a kind of brain-damaged 21st century “Eight Is Enough” that is both wildly successful and increasingly moronic. It’s Jon and Kate and the sextuplets and twins. Well, it was. There’s “rebranding” going on, along with the lawsuits and affairs and court orders and bank withdrawals and bodyguards.

What’s interesting it that while PBS continues to be sniped at by some critics for costume dramas and a “NewsHour” that doesn’t move fast enough, not much is said about the cable networks that bowed to the marketplace and abandoned their initial missions faster than actor Steven Seagal can swing a pool cue.

These days, Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio” is considered cable highbrow. And the aforementioned Steven Seagal, that aging B-movie dispenser of mayhem, has a show that debuts on A&E in December.

PBS gave us the Swedish Chef and Ken Burns. The History Channel gave us “Ice Road Truckers.” A generation later, that’s how it all turned out.