Commentary

Fly-Over Country: Fading Basic Cable Is TV's Low-Rent District

An executive from Turner put it rather succinctly the other day when he commented in a public forum on the state of basic cable today.

“There are too many sh---- networks in the United States that have to go away,” said the executive -- John Martin, chairman and CEO of the Turner network group at Time Warner -- using a word that has come into wide use on basic cable lately (but which I still choose to blot out tastefully with dashes).

He made his comments at a media forum in Manhattan Wednesday night, according to a story on the Hollywood Reporter Web site.

His comment dovetailed with my own impressions recently about the state of cable -- gleaned from the experience of grazing through the channel lineup every day in search of something to watch and passing by so many networks and shows on which I almost never stop.

As usual in such cases, I imagine I am far from unique. I assume many other people are having the same experience.

Maybe you have asked yourself these same questions while watching the channels and show titles fly by: Who is this “Vanderpump” anyway? And what is this “Love & Hip-Hop” show? 

FYI: “Vanderpump” is the last name of a person who is the focal point of a show called “Vanderpump Rules” on Bravo. “Love & Hip-Hop” is on VH1. There’s an Atlanta version and a Hollywood version. There may even be more versions, but turning to Google for more information on this show is above my pay grade.

The point is that there is a vast swath of basic cable that is the TV equivalent of fly-over country -- you “fly over” these networks on the way to somewhere else.

The other day, I made a stop in fly-over country, on VH1, to sample a show I had heard about featuring Snoop Dogg co-hosting with Martha Stewart. Now there’s an offbeat combination that just might work, I thought hopefully as I settled in to watch the show.

Titled “Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party,” the show is styled as a get-together of celebrity friends who come on-set to help Snoop and Martha prepare dinner. There is a studio audience and even a DJ -- like a nightclub, but with a kitchen.

In the episode I attempted to watch, the DJ held a teddy bear in one hand while spinning records in the other. Maybe he’s a Millennial who obtained this stuffed companion as a means of self-comforting after Donald Trump won the election. Isn’t this what Millennials do?

As implied by the use of the phrase “attempted to watch,” I bailed after about seven minutes because the show was unwatchable. It consisted of Snoop and Martha exchanging off-the-cuff comments about the food and drink they were preparing, while “celebrities” who nobody ever heard of trotted in and out.

The ad-libbed comments were disgusting too. I gave up after Snoop made some kind of a comment about spurting his brown juice into the punch -- or something like that. And I just thought: How have we come to this, where we’re making TV shows that are far worse than the worst we ever saw in the worst eras of old-fashioned network TV?

This Martha and Snoop show is so poorly made that you come away thinking that the people who produce it simply don’t care. And maybe there’s a sector of basic cable that is losing so much viewership -- and by implication, money -- these days that maybe their owners have stopped caring.

Well, if they feel as if they’re toiling on the TV version of the Titanic, then it's partially their own fault. VH1 has long been basic cable’s low-rent district, but it’s worse today, if that’s possible.

Who are the other fly-over networks on basic cable? Bravo is one, and so is MTV, which lately has been shedding programming executives left and right. When was the last time MTV had a show anyone talked about? “Jersey Shore”? That show ended in 2012, which may as well be a lifetime ago.

Now Snooki’s on the upcoming “Celebrity Apprentice” on NBC (starting in January with Arnold Schwarzenegger), along with a gaggle of other pseudo-celebs who you likely won’t know. 

Maybe the problem is that the reality-TV trend -- at least where the preponderance of the shows you fly over on Bravo, MTV, VH1 and some of the Discovery channels are concerned -- is over. 

We are in a “quality” TV moment now, which means there’s too much good stuff to land on elsewhere, after we’ve passed over the fly-over country of basic cable.

7 comments about "Fly-Over Country: Fading Basic Cable Is TV's Low-Rent District".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, December 1, 2016 at 2:10 p.m.

    Quality is in the eye of the beholder. One man's junk is another man's treasure. We just elected a President by swing votes from so-called flyover country. I agree there is trash on cable, but if it attracts viewers, is it really trash? And whose trash? Quality is just a word many of us use for "shows that I like" (and expect others to like for some amorphous, intrinsic "quality").  I have well-educated friends hooked on Alaskan Bush People: Would you and your cable exec friend last seven minutes with it? I can't stand to watch it, but some in my family can't wait until the next episode.

  2. Steve Beverly from Union Broadcasting System, December 1, 2016 at 2:13 p.m.

    Adam is the gutsiest media columnist on the Web, in my opinion.  In the era of the original Big 3 networks, NBC's Paul Klein had the Least Objectionable Program theory:  if viewers didn't like what was on any of the networks, they would still pick the one of the three they disliked the least and watch.  Somewhat like our recent Presidential election, right?

    With cable, the abyss is so deep, that we don't just fly over, we ignore.

    A national columnist actually wrote recently a piece on "why Snoop Dogg and Martha actually works."

    Adam is the one columnist who has the guts to call bad programming exactly what it is.

    You are absolutely right, Adam.  With what passes for a dumpster fire on basic cable, I find myself increasingly asking, "Have we really come to THAT?"  Keep it coming!

  3. Tim Brooks from consultant, December 1, 2016 at 2:28 p.m.

    Way to go! That's the kind of attitude that just led to a massive uprising against the East and West Coast elites in this country (in the election). Flyover country? I suspect many of the millions who live there hope the elites will keep flying over, way up there, and not land at their airports! To each his own.

  4. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, December 1, 2016 at 2:57 p.m.

    As Douglas points out, maybe it's a lot of trash and endless reruns, plus an ocassional "good" show, but why is basic cable garnering more than half of all TV viewing while the broadcast TV networks do well to capture 20% across all dayparts? Yes, most cable channels are on 24 hours a day and there are many , many of them, so that accounts for part of the differential in total viewing time, or "tonnage". But not all of it---not by a long shot. Just look at the demos. The broadcast networks, with their version of "quality" programming, have a lopsided dempgraphic imbalance in their viewership which did not exist to anything like the current extent in the pre-cable era. Now, their primary audience---not exclusive, but primary---is persons aged 50+ and those in low income households---often the same people. While some believe that Netflix is the reason---and it does play a role, especially for primetime fare---the main reason is the diversity of cable content and the fact that younger and better educated people can find programs they like on cable to a far greater extent than on the broadcast networks.

  5. David Scardino from TV & Film Content Development, December 1, 2016 at 4:39 p.m.

    I think Adam's job is to call 'em as he sees 'em, so the fact that others don't share his taste comes with the price of admission. And I'm sure Adam would be the first person to say everyone's entitled to their own opinion. C'est la vie, baby...! 

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 1, 2016 at 6:20 p.m.

    Not a Jersey Shore watcher or respect for concept, but now Snooki has repudiated her own actions and wants to be called Nicole, her name. She deserves that. There is a lot of garbage on cable and no one will dispute that, but money talks as if you didn't know.

  7. John Grono from GAP Research, December 1, 2016 at 7:19 p.m.

    Ummmm .... is it ... Shonky?

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