The Death of Niche Cable

I think it started with MTV’s The Real World. That was when MTV realized that it could make more money with shows that have a clear demographic than it could with just random videos all day long. This inevitably led to our current state of affairs wherein actual music videos on MTV are as scarce as hookers in Times Square. MTV is even saying goodbye to TRL, the last outpost of daytime video programming on MTV.

I’ve noticed an alarming number of cable channels finding greater profits in programming that violates the channel’s name and mandate.

VH1 was quick to follow, eventually packing its schedule with reality shows and instant nostalgia programs. The name VH1, for those who don’t remember, once stood for “video hits.” Like its big sister MTV did with M2, so VH1 begat VH1 Classic, tasking it with doing the chores VH1 was too busy making money to bother with, namely, playing video hits.

Next up, Bravo. Once a channel dedicated to actorly pursuits like Inside the Actor’s Studio (itself now a show featuring stars rather than actors), Bravo now boasts a schedule packed to the gills with reality shows of questionable relevance to its original charter of focusing on film, drama, and the performing arts. It should be noted that Bravo’s Canadian twin, Bravo!, never made this transition.

More recently, AMC, a channel whose name once stood for “American Movie Classics,” launched in 2007 its first original drama series, Mad Men. At least they’ve violated their namesake with a really good show.

The lesson here is that there may not be any money in niche programming, and as soon as there is, the niche is the first thing that dies. I’m once again reminded of that Eric Hoffer quotation, “every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Maybe that’s a natural consequence of the old business adage: “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”