“You gotta give the people what they want” is the unofficial slogan of the American economy. If people would rather be entertained than informed, far be it from a Wall St. fat cat to send them educational material anyway. Let the people eat their fish sticks and watch reality tv on the History channel — who the hell cares as long as they’re sitting through the ads?
But when television was first starting out, people feared that it was going to have a corrosive effect on young minds. Ladies Home Journal, a popular house-keeping magazine in the 50s, warned that watching too much television would give children “telebugeye”, which would make the child a “pale, weak, and stupid-looking creature.” Execs, ever ignorant to slanderous profiles of their product in popular media, created channels hence National Educational Television, later PBS, and all other higher-brow network.
But to remain relevant, channels have had to change their programming. Here’s a list of the 15 channels that changed their content to appeal to shifting markets.
15. Animal Planet
Animal Planet was launched in 1996 to entertain people about natural history and natural science. Its logo of an elephant holding up the earth perfectly encapsulated its mission as a company. But in 2008, the channel kicked off a campaign, “Same planet, different world,” that would rebrand the company to have more bite.
Brian Eley, Animal Planet’s director of communications, said that the new programming would tap into people’s interests – fear, hunger, pleasure, nurture – with more compelling, (read: violent) stories, programs like My Cat From Hell and Monsters Inside Me.
14. SyFy Now Shows Wrestling
In line with Discovery’s decision to switch to more violent program, the network that once focused on, as expected, science fiction or supernatural themes now shows violent wrestling as part of its programming. Originally called The Sci-Fi Channel, this network showed re-runs of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Star Trek.
In 2009, the network president David Howe said: “We don’t want to be in the niche space. We want to be in general entertainment.” They added WWE Smackdown to their lineup in 2010. Howe said it fit the branding because of wrestling’s “fantastical thrills.”
13. ABC Family Was Once Religious
Although there is still an obvious religious bent in the programming on ABC Family (the dad in 7th Heaven was a pastor, it plays The 700 Club, it does 25 days of Christmas…), it isn’t as pronounced as it was at the beginning of the network; ABC Family is now best known for Pretty Little Liars.
But when the network was launched as The Family Channel in 1977, it was an arm of Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. It was sold to Disney in 2001 and rebranded as ABC Family, but still it carries a small bit of preachiness that the secular entertainment over on the Disney Channel couldn’t carry off.
12. AMC Was Once For American Classic Movies
Or, as the acronym would say, “American Movie Classics.” Launched as a premium network in 1984, AMC once played only movies made prior to the 1950s. It remained faithful to the mission of preserving the American filmic patrimony until starting its first series in 1996.
In 2002 it underwent significant rebranding, opening itself up to movies of all eras. In 2007, it launched Mad Men, which was wildly successful. Breaking Bad premiered in 2008 and The Walking Dead has been dominating since 2010. The network changed its slogan to “Story Matters Here,” showing the shift towards quality original programming.
11. Discovery Channel
Once one of the greatest benefits of cable television, Discovery Channel didn’t used to show anything even mildly offensive or disturbing. They used to run programs about such things as steam engines, domesticated animals, and the Kalahari Desert.
Now, having to compete with other networks that are focusing increasingly on sex and violence, Discovery has abandoned its wholesome mission and switched to docu-dramas such as Dirty Jobs, Real Miami Cops, and Most Evil, the last two showing that Discovery’s priorities are now in compelling violence.
10. VH1 Was Once For Music
Much like MTV, VH1 was also once known to play music. Launched on the first day of 1985, Video Hits 1 was supposed to show a softer side of pop music, which included more general-audiences artists (Olivia Newton John, Elton John, Eric Clapton) and retroactively produced music videos for old Motown songs made from newsreels and concert footage.
In 1994, Vh1 rebranded and added “Music First” to its name. In 2003, they dropped the “music first” and added a “+” to the logo, showing that they were entering into the expanded arena of reality television.
9. USA Was Originally Meant For Sports
Launched in 1977 as the Madison Square Garden Network, the channel first broadcasted college and lesser-known professional sports. It began after 5pm on weekdays and noon on weekends.
In 1980, it changed its name to USA Network and began showing things like daytime talk shows. Later, it began showing its own shows, like the very successful Monk and Psych. Although it’s still now known for sports, people would probably think of USA as more of a scripted show network than a sports broadcaster.
8. TBS Originally Played Japanese Anime
TBS began as a broadcast television station in Atlanta, Georgia. Its first time on the air was in 1967. In the 70s, the channel increased in popularity and became disseminated in the entire South-Eastern U.S. Early programming included movies from the 30s and 40s, sitcoms, and Japanese Animated shows.
In the late 90s, it experienced a shift towards comedy, and now the bulk of its programming comes from sitcoms that were originally broadcast on the major TV networks.
7. Lifetime Started Out As a General Interest Network
With a much more gender-neutral logo and variety programming, Lifetime was originally a network for all viewers. They for instance had a nightly talk show hosted by Regis Philbin.
In 1988, they hired Patricia Fili as their head of programming, and she changed, as she estimated, sixty percent of the programming, including giving their cornerstone talk show, Attitudes, a women’s bent. The bent remained, with Lifetime now being a women’s network par excellence.
6. Spike Was Founded For Country Music Lovers
Spike was founded in 1983 under the name TNN, or The Nashville Network. That’s right, y’all: this ALL-AMERICAN BOY’S network was once the all American cowboy’s network.
In 2000, network execs decided to rebrand TNN to stand for “The National Network,” and broadcast such things as wrestling. Football was also added. Then, in 2003, the network changed into its final iteration: SpikeTV, marketed as the first television channel for less-than-sophisticated men.
5. Bravo Was Once For High Culture
Now known for its infamous Real Housewives, a brilliant foray into reality television that has spawned such clones as Mob Wives and Dance Moms, Bravo was once a channel for those who adored high culture.
A New York Times columnist in 1985 called the programming on Bravo “seemingly uncommercial fare.” He goes on to say: “From Woody Allen films to documentaries about Latin America to performances by the Pina Bausch dance troupe, the offerings range from the challenging to the downright esoteric.” Going from the esoteric to the vulgar, Bravo is a network that has changed what it broadcasts.
4. TLC Was Once A Learning Channel
Few people know what “TLC” stands for. Many probably assumed it stands for “Tender Loving Care,” an acronym that jives with televisions seemingly overwhelming tendency to favor family values. But it actually means “The Learning Channel,” which also jives with that tendency, but adds a notion of instructiveness.
That’s right, when TLC was founded, under the name The Learning Channel, you could learn about such things as medicine and home improvement. Now, with shows like I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, TLC doesn’t even pretend to be informative, but gosh is it even entertaining.
3. A&E Once Played Brainy Content
First launched in 1984, A&E originally followed Nickelodeon for the three hours after 9 pm. It was envisioned as a commercial counterpart to PBS, which, as any Sesame Street watching kid will remember, is “made possible by viewers like you.”
It experienced a progressive decline to the low-brow, reaching ground zero with Intervention, a 2004 premiere that showed addicts being confronted by their worried families. After totally abandoning the spirit of their then slogan “Time Well Spent,” they began creating some of the most disrespected content on television, like Duck Dynasty and Storage Wars.
2. MTV Once Played Music
As Bowling For Soup put it in their song “1985,” reminiscence on that year in pop culture, “there was U2 and Blondie and music still on MTV.” Hard to imagine, isn’t it? MTV was the network to bring reality TV into the mainstream with its groundbreaking series The Real World.
They then did Road Rules, True Life, Jackass, and The Osbournes. Some of the smartest reality shows emerged from the self-proclaimed music network. But, if you look at the actual mission of the network, it becomes obvious that it’s just the young people’s network, and so the fact that it doesn’t just play music isn’t so offensive.
1. History Once Played History
First launched in 1995, The History Channel (now only “History”) made good on its name. It aired so much history programming, specifically World War II programming, that it became known as “The Hitler Channel.” Now, History has reality shows like Ice Road Truckers and Swamp People.
Although there’s a historical bent, they’re more sensationalism than educative. Granted, Gettysburg just won four Emmys, but the brilliant historians sitting in studies who were once a fixture on The History Channel are now, ironically, a thing of the past.