"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 5 February 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Cable Degeneration


It's a scientific fact that people like to watch ass-kickings. From Toughman Competitions, where Carnies and Truckers beat the piss out of each other for a few seconds of face time on FX, to state-of-the-art computer graphics that allow injury-prone homewrecker Russell Crowe to battle a big cat with all the lifelike detail of Tony the Tiger, you just can't go wrong with physical aggression. Unfortunately, modern etiquette makes a Crowe vehicle the only place where we can see to-the-death Gladiator action. But last year, one cable TV channel stepped up to deliver the next best thing: Robotic mortal combat. And what channel was that? Was it ante-defying FOX? Testosterrific FX? Hot-blooded USA? No, the powerful killing machines were brought to us by Comedy Central.

This is a classic example of Cable TV demo-drift. Like the mobility of professional sports franchises that leaves teams celebrating the Mormon jazz of Utah or the splendid lakes of Los Angeles, cable niche markets begin to drift almost as soon as they're identified.

Battlebots boasts it is "the ultimate contest of engineering, strategy and creativity," with radio controlled robots engaging in winner-take-all deathmatches. In reality, the high tech robots are about as complex as a pony keg and a couple of Craftsmen skill saw blades, and their "deaths" usually involve being flipped over and spinning their little wheels until time expires. (The Battlebots site, on one hand, boasts that the robots are made by NASA scientists and, on the other, encourages fans to build their own and enter). Whether Battlebots is the advent of robotic sport or simply a dumping ground for those who couldn't make Junkyard Wars, it marks a major departure for Comedy Central. If the recent past is any indication, that spells the beginning of the end for the network.

Cable Television is all about finding a niche. With digital and satellite systems able to support 200 channels, the only way to survive is with specialty programming. Sure, it's debatable whether 8 Heads in a Duffle Bag and Whose Line is it Anyway constitute comedy, but with Battlebots, Comedy Central makes an important break from it's original purpose.

Call it the Remote Control syndrome. MTV is the textbook example of the cable transition. On the few occasions that the network does broadcast music videos, these are rarely show in their entirety, and the screen is filled with more scrolling message boards than CNBC during a Tornado Warning. What about A&E? It seems clear that American Justice and reruns of Night Court constitute neither Arts nor Entertainment. Ironically, the network's most popular show, Biography, has spawned it's own niche station (in the same way that A&E's early surplus of Hitler material made it necessary to create the History Channel). It's only a matter of time before The Biography Channel interrupts Pol Pot and Hugh Heffner narratives with Win Harry Smith's Money or International Swimsuit: Denmark.

A successful cable channel does find a niche, but that niche rarely has as much to do with content as it does with audience deliverables. Initial specialty programming is incidental. Whether they're showing music videos or some guy swimming in human feces, MTV is the Mecca for teeny-boppers and pedophiles alike. Lifetime has cornered the market on depressive, middle-aged women. FOX News plays to those who prefer propaganda to news or can't differentiate the two.

By simply dedicating itself to something as broad as music or comedy, a network doesn't really corner a demographic. Comedy Central came out of the blocks with everything from MST3K to Gallagher specials, but never really hit its stride until South Park. With The Man Show and Battlebots, the network moves closer and closer to becoming the official network of Neanderthal, twenty-something men everywhere (although FX and TBS want a shot at the title). Battlebots may occasionally be funny, but it isn't comedy. It is just something for the men of Sigma Alpha Epsilon to look at and say "Dude, did you see that?"

Cable stations are all too happy to abandon any diverse or interesting programming in order to deliver advertisers a cohesive bundle of viewers. You can't watch MTV without being bombarded by Noxema commercials, and you can't watch PAX (although why would you want to?) without learning that even if you're an 89-year-old chronic smoker in prison YOU CANNOT BE TURNED DOWN FOR LIFE INSURANCE. The channels above 13 are an endless parade of Hit Clips and Craftmatic Adjustable Beds. Choose your poison.

This is not to say that there is no good programming on cable. Quite the contrary, cable stations are consistently the ones that make bold decisions that lead to really groundbreaking television. But there are no cable networks that will take a chance on a show unless it is in the name of forming a solid coalition of consumers ready to throw their disposable income at whatever crap flashes across the idiot box. The process is not unlike the way Amazon.com bombards users with ads for products deemed similar to earlier purchases, even if Ass-Blaster 16 was just a gift for a friend. It's just that with cable, the ads don't need to be tailored to an individual viewer because the network's programming has already determined what the characteristics of the viewer will be; and the stubborn persistence of non-interactive television helps to keep it that way.

There is no point in even coming up with splashy names for cable stations anymore. We don't really flip from Comedy Central to MSNBC, we flip from white, twenty-year-old male to white, middle-aged male. Can't we just drop the act and forefront the demographic?

Honey, come watch this delightful program on Gay Hispanic Male.

But I wanted to watch Ostentatious Shiksa Pain In the Ass tonight.

Television programming's only universal constant seems to be the pseudo-Haitian seer whose omniscience allows her to deduce that the trailer court queen on the line is cheating on her man. Ultimately, a cable channel is defined more than anything else by which half-assed musical compilation is advertised every five minutes. So whether you're watching ads for "Power of Love" or "Freedom Rock," the solution is obvious: Turn it off, man.

Speak to the other people in your demographic in today's Plastic discussion.

courtesy of Alice the Camel


pictures Terry Colon

Alice the Camel