Cable Networks: The Brand That Bends

History shows many cable networks will turn into something they didn't intend.

A&E was originally positioned as a high arts and entertainment channel -- now it's a general interest entertainment network. MTV ran music videos, but now hardly airs one, preferring straight-ahead programming such as "Pimp My Ride."

So it's not unexpected that Court TV would try to do the same. Hard-core daytime trial coverage was the network's bread and butter during its initial years. But that unsavory subject matter is a tough nut to crack among advertisers. The programming shortens the list of advertisers who will buy it. That's why over the last few years the network successfully moved into documentary and scripted programming in primetime.

Now it wants to make that move official to get a special separate Nielsen Media Research rating that, for instance, Nickelodeon has long had for Nick at Night and that Cartoon Network recently received for Adult Swim.

Court TV wants to split into "Court TV News" during the daytime and "Court TV Seriously Entertainment" during primetime.

Changing TV brand perception and value can be a good thing. The problem occurs when that brand starts to look the same as everyone else.

If all the big entertainment cable networks -- A&E, TNT, TBS, USA, and Discovery TV - continue to go after similar programs such as "Law & Order" or program similar looking reality shows, viewers will lose allegiance. Cable's typical model for success is in attracting viewers to the network - not just an individual program. Advertisers have a different view -- at least in the short term. National TV advertisers want bigger ratings and many cable networks, now at their maturity, have no choice but to go with broader entertainment fare, just like the broadcast networks.

But is it what viewers want? Broader entertainment - mostly advertiser friendly programming --- may not keep viewers very long. And when viewers tire of the sameness, they'll move on --- even back to the broadcast networks.

Expand the cable brand. But in taking on too much air, be careful about drifting away.

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