Cable at a crossroads

As viewers are cutting the cords, air comes out of cable’s bloated balloon in the form of increasing defunct channels.

A long-awaited change may be coming to the pay-TV atmosphere.

Stories this week in Variety, Wall Street Journal, and Awful Announcing suggest the cable ecosystem is expected to shift soon due to low viewership, low reach, and high cost. Many of these channels are having their marketing budgets cut while others would be slashed altogether.

The graveyard is filled with defunct cable networks, from G4 to Nick GAS and from SoapNet to Court TV (and if you go far back, you have the Satellite News Channel and The Box. Remember them?) And more are coming – as reported here recently, Chiller is being dropped by Dish Network next month, Cloo already ceased operations, and the Esquire Network is shifting from a cable channel to digital.

In the 1980’s, the average household had around 35 channels (including over-the-air stations.) In the early years, you had BET, CNN, ESPN, CBN (now Freeform), MTV, Nickelodeon, USA, WGN, WTBS and premium channels HBO, Disney, and Showtime. By the end of the decade, TNT, VH1, and CNBC joined in.

But in the 1990’s, the number of cable channels exploded thanks to the 1992 Cable Act, which compensated broadcasters for cable and satellite systems carrying channels. But many companies opted instead to create new cable channels for carriage – this is how FX (under News Corp.) and ESPN 2 (Disney) were born. More than fifty new cable channels were created, including SciFi (now SyFy), AMC, Bravo, Food Network, Animal Planet, and Cartoon Network.

In the previous decade, the number of channels grew by leaps and bounds as existing cable channels started spinning off – MTV spun off MTV 2, Lifetime birthed Lifetime Movie Network and Lifetime Real Women, and BET added Centric, BET Jams and BET Gospel. More channels followed, while others like the current Spike and Freeform had their name changed – multiple times.

In this current decade, some channels were born due to deals made by minority groups with Comcast as a result of their merger with NBC – hello, Aspire (with Magic Johnson as partner), Revolt (with Sean Combs as a partner) and El Rey were created.

With cable bills rising and the advent of streaming services offering high-quality programming, you knew the bubble was going to burst at some point. Many consumers – especially millennials – are getting rid of cable, either by slimming down packages, switching to a cheaper provider (like yours truly’s household recently did) or eliminating them all together. Even worse, many cable channels – especially those owned by Viacom and NBCUniversal – are notorious for long commercial breaks, lasting as long as eight minutes, drawing complaints from viewers AND advertisers (type “BET Too many commercials” into Twitter Search and you’ll see what I mean.)

As a result, several smaller channels are losing subscribers fast, many of them with low subscriber-per-fee rates.

Averaging 35,000 viewers per night and earning just $0.09 a subscriber in affiliate fees, MTV Classic is rumored to be cut.

And with over-the-air television offering more choice via digital subchannels (such as MeTV, Decades, Movies!, and Buzzr), viewers can combine these and a few streaming subscriptions via Roku, Chromecast, and Apple TV – with the savings in the hundreds per year. The launch of Playstation Vue and DirecTV NOW – streaming cable channels exclusively through the Internet – gives consumers another alternative to pricey cable subscriptions.

Today, cable channels have to deliver an audience with original programming (scripted or otherwise.) Channels with limited reach airing reruns all day are no longer cutting it. Recently, Viacom – with 25 channels in their arsenal –  announced they were going to shift their investments and marketing power only toward six of these channels. NBCUniversal has moved to cut underperforming channels with Cloo gone and Chiller on the chopping block. Others, such as Al Jazzera America and Esquire, never could find an audience.

Here’s T Dog Media’s top twelve cable channels in trouble – yes, I know there are more, but can’t list them all due to space limitations. These networks are not necessarily in danger of going dark – but these channels are struggling with low ratings, low subscriber rates, terrible reach, and a few have high commercial loads. Rankings are in no particular order.

Logo. Owned by Viacom, this channel once targeted to LGBT viewers, has become TV Land 2: reruns of 1980s and 1990s sitcoms (including the classic popular in the era of leg warmers… Green Acres.) Most, if not all original programming on this channel has evaporated.

TV Land. Also owned by Viacom, this classic TV channel has pushed into original programming with some success (Hot In Cleveland) and some not so much (Younger.) But competition from free over-the-air diginets MeTV, Antenna TV, Cozi, and Retro TV – not to mention long commercial beds and squeezing credits – has eroded audience. The Wall Street Journal notes the channel is still profitable, but the extra ad time may be a factor.

MTV Classic. Once known as VH1 Classic, this classic channel featuring once-popular MTV programming is struggling and may not last longer, given the channel only averages 35,000 viewers in primetime – roughly the size of Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood.

All BET channel spinoffs. Gospel, Jams, etc…. see MTV Classic.

Viceland. The former H2 (History Channel 2) is now a news network targeted to millennials, based on the website Vice.com. And how did this exactly work out for the now-defunct Current?

Chiller. As noted before, NBCUniversal’s classic horror/sci-fi channel is on the ropes, thanks to Dish’s announcement it was dropping this channel.

Oxygen. Originally founded by former Nickelodeon executive Geraldine Laybourne, Oprah Winfrey, and Carsey-Werner to compete with Lifetime, this female-targeted channel (which segued into stuff like Bad Girls Club after its sale to NBCUniversal in 2007) is being rebarnded to a real-life crime channel.

INSP (Inspiration Network.) Formerly known as PTL Television Network, it’s now just Another classic TV channel with little or no original programming. It’s a nice family-friendly alternative, but see TV Land to see what it’s facing.

ESPN Classic. Since ESPN bought the wonderful Classic Sports Network and became ESPN Classic, this has been the home for classic ESPN material and classic games they produced. Unfortunately, the non-ESPN content (and some original programming) which made the channel great vanished. ESPN Classic is on a pay tier on many systems.

ESPN News. Since SportsCenter airs much of the time on the mothership when ESPN isn’t airing sports, this isn’t really much use for this channel.

FS2 (Fox Sports 2.) Originally Fuel, this channel’s was re-launched the same time FS 1 was – but isn’t carried by most cable systems.

Fuse. Once known as a American version of Canada’s MuchMusic (which itself has undergone a change – dropping the “Music” name from its title), this MTV-like channel segued from playing music videos to music programming to lifestyle, scripted, and reality programming – just like MTV. Since 2014, Fuse has been owned by SiTV Media, a company specializing in programming to Latino audiences.

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