Yet the concept of the narrow focus of cable is more myth than reality. The initial cable channels that sprung to life in the late seventies weren't remarkable in that they provided something specific, but in that they catered to everybody. Channels like TBS and USA mainly played reruns of old dramas and game shows, with maybe a few movies and Atlanta sports events thrown in. There was very little original programming, and the appeal was deliberately broad.
In the years that followed, however, cable television began to concentrate on certain niches, and many of these channels make up the bedrock of modern cable television. ESPN did sports. CNN was news. MTV was music. Nickelodeon was for kids programming. By the time that Food Network, the History Channel, and the Sci-Fi Channel premiered in the nineties, the tale of cable appeared to be a journey from broad generalities to a narrower focus.
But in recent years, the opposite trend has been occurring. Channels originally dedicated to a specific genre have been widening their reach. The desire to broadcast a specific kind of programming has been replaced by the calculated efforts to reach specific audience demographics. Cable channels no longer define themselves in relation to their programming; like the broadcast networks, they now concentrate on their "brand" - a nebulous term in which shows appeal to a certain segment of the populace, while not being confined by the network's original aims (or, in some cases, even the original name of the network).
MTV is the most well-known example of this process. The network originally premiered as a visual counterpoint to radio stations, playing music videos in regular rotation, as well as music-oriented shows like MTV Unplugged and the unfortunately named Yo! MTV Raps. But MTV also realized they had a brand that went beyond music, as they were able to tap into the demographic of young teenagers and twentysomethings. First shows like Beavis and Butthead premiered, that still featured music videos with the twist of having the show's protagonists complain about them. Then, hip youth-oriented programming like The Real World and Road Rules led to a decline in the actual music, and a bunch of subpar reality shows following in their wake. The last decade brought us Punk'd, Tila Tequila, and in 2010, the channel dropped the tagline "Music Television" altogether.
MTV is just MTV now, a collection of letters that stands for nothing. The channel has transformed itself from a music-oriented station to one that airs any crap that will entertain a high-schoolers or bored college students. And history repeats itself - MTV2 premiered as the musical counterpoint to the increasingly non-musical MTV, but it didn't take long for the sister station to go down the same path.
But if MTV at least took care to make sure that their "brand" represented more than just music, others channels have been far sloppier in their transition from niche programming to broad appeal. The Sci-Fi channel, which, appropriately enough, showed old science-fiction shows and original programming ranging from groundbreaking to abysmal, rebranded itself as the meaningless "Syfy" in 2009. It now shows wrestling and reality game shows.
The decline of education-based networks is probably the most tragic. In 1998, The Learning Channel changed its name to TLC, and educational programming was diminished, to make way for innumerable reruns of Trading Spaces, and a bunch of shows about midgets and families who never learned about birth control. In 2008, The History Channel changed its name to the one-word moniker "History." Their story has been a transition from moderately educational World War II documentaries to shows about aliens to stuff like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars which (while admittedly entertaining) don't really reflect the channel's initial focus.
There's something sad about the multiple stories of channels meant to appeal to hobbyists and specialists slowly transitioning to mediocre reality programming. But not all the transitions are necessarily a bad thing. AMC, a channel originally meant to air classic American films, has recently been making the switch to original programming. However, their shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad have been critical successes, and have drawn an unprecedented number of viewers to a previously overlooked network.
New York magazine recently ran an article about AMC's rise to prominence and shift in programming. It makes for a fascinating read, but one of the more interesting nuggets is how little ratings and viewers actually matter for cable networks. While AMC makes some money off selling advertising for their hit shows, most of the money comes from actual cable subscriptions. If a cable channel has a hit show that people want to watch, this means that the network can demand more subscription fees from cable providers; after Mad Men, for example, subscription fees for AMC doubled, from 20 cents to 40 cents a subscriber. This is far from the ESPN range ($4 a subscriber), but it's not bad for a niche network originally dedicated to broadcasting old movies.
The catch, however, is that if AMC has one or two hit shows that allow them to command higher subscription prices, they have very little incentive to make new hits. Their revenue, remember, comes more from fees than from ads. Once the fees start rolling it, why spend tons of money to produce more high-quality television? Shows like Mad Men are inordinately expensive to produce, when compared to the amount of ad revenue they generate, and AMC sees none of the profits from DVD sales - that all goes to the production company Lionsgate.
The New York article ends with the sobering assessment that, to grow and start reaping the big bucks, networks almost necessarily need to shun niche marketing and appeal to larger and larger groups of people. The article discusses how AMC is starting to diversify, by shopping around for comedies and reality shows. Once you have the fans of slow-moving dramas, you want to reach out to other demographics to command even more subscription fees.
There was something fun about the original niche markets of cable television, with the idea that science-fiction fans or history buffs had a place to go and get their fix. Unfortunately, this cable model seems to be a thing of the past. Broad, sweeping appeal is the way forward, it seems. We can only hope that networks will try and achieve this through high-profile success stories like Mad Men, rather than taking the easy route and broadcasting another Kate Gosselin special. And perhaps the Internet and new distribution models will provide an alternative to the previous hyper-specificity of cable television.