Cable Network Musical Chairs and TNA on Destination America (Huh?)

Discovery Communications has long been at the forefront of new technology; their HD Theater channel (which eventually became Velocity) was one of the first HD channels, and before that they were one of the first companies to take advantage of the explosion of channels digital cable opened up. In 1996, Discovery opened no fewer than five new channels: besides Animal Planet, which Discovery was able to get in nearly as many households as their main network, Discovery launched Discovery Kids, Discovery Civilization, Discovery Science, and Discovery Travel and Living. Of those four, not one still has its launch name, and only Discovery Science didn’t change its name multiple times, becoming the Science Channel in 2002 – and even that doesn’t count addition, subtraction, and changing of articles and descriptors. Discovery Kids became a joint venture with Hasbro and relaunched as the Hub, but reverted to Discovery Family earlier this year. Discovery Civilization, originally Discovery’s answer to the History Channel, became a joint venture with the New York Times, rebranded as Discovery Times in 2003, and began adding more shows about current events and “American people and culture”. In 2008, after the Times had dropped out of the venture, it became Investigation Discovery, primarily a home for “true crime”-type shows. But that’s nothing compared to what happened to Discovery Travel and Living, which went through no fewer than two major shifts in focus.

By 1998, it had become Discovery Home and Leisure, Discovery’s answer to HGTV. In 2008, after it had become clear that the channel wasn’t standing out in the crowded home improvement channel marketplace, Discovery relaunched it with much fanfare as Planet Green, the first network dedicated to the environment and ecological living. Discovery infused $50 million into original programming for the channel, but it went nowhere, especially with its launch coinciding with the onset of the Great Recession, and by 2010 programs unrelated to the network’s ecological theme began creeping into the schedule. By 2012 the channel was clearly just limping along until Discovery could find a new format to replace it with and put Planet Green out of its misery. That new format turned out to be Destination America, a channel targeted towards “middle America” with a collection of America-centric shows, best described as a make good for Discovery selling the Travel Channel in 2007.

And now? Now Destination America announced on Wednesday it will be adding TNA’s Impact professional wrestling when TNA’s contract with Spike expires at the end of the year.

All this got me thinking about the fate of G4, which Comcast launched in 2002 as a channel about video games. In 2004, it absorbed the TechTV channel and became known as G4techTV for a short time. It started becoming a more generically male-oriented channel similar to Spike, but by 2009 was starting to decline, and in late 2010 DirecTV dropped the channel citing limited interest, effectively putting the writing on the wall. Comcast entered talks to sell G4 to the UFC or WWE to become their own networks in 2011, but those talks fell through, and in 2012 Comcast wound down G4’s once-popular (or at least cult-following-holding) remaining original programming, X-Play and Attack of the Show! At the end of the year, it looked like G4 had found its next incarnation when it was announced it would rebrand as Esquire Network.

Then in September 2013, barely two weeks before the much-postponed rebrand (originally slated for April) was to take effect, Comcast, now through its NBCUniversal division, announced that they would rebrand Style, not G4, as Esquire Network, citing Style’s considerable target demographic overlap with other networks in the NBCU portfolio, specifically E! and the networks Bravo and Oxygen Comcast acquired in the merger. Esquire Network, by contrast, was seen as filling a hole underserved elsewhere in the company or on all of cable television (some of Style’s female-skewing shows would remain on the male-skewing but metrosexual-oriented network), and G4, for which Esquire represented a more natural evolution of, was at least a part of the company that wasn’t nearly as duplicated as the glut of female-oriented networks Comcast had. But the move of Esquire to Style was no reprieve for G4, which by that point had declined to 62 million homes to Style’s DirecTV-infused 75 million. Comcast allowed its carriage agreements to lapse and even dropped G4 from its own lineup, and recently word came out that G4 would disappear from those few channel lineups that still had it at the end of this month.

That Comcast would move the Esquire Network rebrand off of G4 and onto Style, but then let G4 fade out of existence rather than do anything else with the channel space, effectively pissing off two fanbases for the price of one, never made sense to me. As the cases of Destination America and G4, not to mention Fox’s national sports network shakeup of 2013, show, big media companies are loath to attempt to start a new network from scratch, preferring to rebrand an existing network that isn’t doing much of anything but has spots on channel lineups already secured. Of all the companies I mentioned in Part IV of my Nexus of Television and Sports series that control most of your channel lineup, none has actually launched an entirely new full-time English-language cable network other than one of the Epix channels since the Fox Business network in 2007 (and the Smithsonian Channel shortly before that), unless you count the 2010 launch of Fox Soccer Plus to replace bankrupt Setanta Sports. Smaller entities launch networks from scratch only because they don’t have existing channel space to begin with, and even then most of the ones that have come along in recent years owe their existence to the condition requiring Comcast to carry minority-owned networks as a result of the NBCUniversal merger, with the possible exception of 2012’s beIN Sport; by my estimation, the network in the most homes to be founded since 2007 other than beIN Sport is the American version of RT in 2010.

For most of the networks launched in the midst of the digital cable boom of the late 90s and 2000s, they find themselves in a game of format musical chairs, desperately looking for something, anything, that will attract an audience and catch on, and if they don’t they become the target for the next channel idea the suits come up with. When Oprah Winfrey wants to have her own network, Discovery merges Discovery Health into the somewhat redundant FitTV and gives Oprah the space freed up. When Fox wants to launch a spinoff of the National Geographic Channel focused on animals, they shut down Fox Reality to do so. Fox even decided to launch its new FX spinoff FXX concurrently with its sports shakeup last year on Fox Soccer, even though that placed it in a limited number of households and not only in a channel neighborhood with sports channels, but in many areas on a sports package. In this light, it is mystifying that Comcast would allow themselves to let a channel space wither away so casually, even one in as few homes and without DirecTV carriage as G4. Heck, Destination America, a little over a year ago, was pegged at under 60 million households and it’s hardly withering away.

Nothing better illustrates how badly oversaturated the market for linear television channels is. What has become apparent over the last seven years plus is that people will follow the content (or at least that’s what Destination America hopes); the channel it happens to be on is just an address, and whatever else happens to be on the channel is immaterial, and the people that own the channels just want to secure one of the limited number of things out there that have or will attract an audience to their channel. Which brings me back to TNA.

TNA, for those who don’t know, has spent most of the new millenium desperately trying to be a competitor w ith WWE. It got its start in 2002 running pay-per-views on a weekly basis, which pretty much no one else was doing, allowing it to very much live up to the pun in its name. Eventually in 2004 TNA secured a deal to run a weekly show on Fox Sports Net, allowing them to move to the monthly pay-per-view model used by the WWE, but that show was cancelled after a year, and iMPACT! (as the show was called then) moved to a webcast for a few months before being picked up by Spike, which had just lost WWE’s flagship Raw program. TNA never really went anywhere on Spike, but it attracted a consistent, strong audience of over a million viewers every Thursday (and Monday in a brief, disastrous attempt to go against Raw, and Wednesday in recent months), and when Bellator MMA moved to Spike after that channel lost the UFC TNA was instrumental in helping build an audience for it. However, relations between TNA and Spike soured in recent months to the point that Spike would not even negotiate a renewal of TNA’s contract, merely letting TNA stay on the air until it found a new partner, a partner that proved far inferior to what Spike could offer.

Wrestling has long been an innovator when it comes to technological change – wrestling was a big part of what built WTBS in the 70s – and TNA’s adoption of monthly pay-per-views and going to the Internet when FSN didn’t renew their contract, even if it was a necessary result of circumstances, is a big part of that. In that light, and in light of the launch of the over-the-top WWE Network earlier this year (even if subscriber counts for it have failed to meet expectations), it’s somewhat disappointing to me that TNA would shack up with a marginally-distributed network, one without much of an identity at all but to the extent it has one meshes questionably well with TNA’s content, rather than blaze a trail on the Internet in an environment friendlier to webcasts than the last time they tried it. Heck, near as I can tell TNA will completely disappear for the rest of the year with Spike airing a collection of “best of” shows until TNA makes its Destination America debut in the new year. There are a number of reasons to suspect TNA is in the midst of a long, slow decline, and while I don’t know that moving to the Internet would have stopped it in the long or short term, I certainly don’t think moving to a marginally distributed cable network at a time when cable as a whole may be on the decline will help.

What Bob Costas’ halftime commentary should have been

As seems to so often be the case, whenever a tragedy happens that shakes us to our very core we’re left unable to figure out how we should feel, knowing only that however we feel, someone is going to tell us we’re wrong. Such is the case with the shocking murder-suicide of Jovan Belcher on Saturday, which have left many of us unsure what to make of any of it.

We like to put people into black-and-white categories as a society – we like to have someone to blame and someone to be the victim. We like to fit everything into a nice and neat story. No one would put any blame on the girlfriend who was killed or the young girl who was orphaned; they are both clearly victims. But let’s face it, neither are they the story here. No one even knew who either of them were until they were reported in the aftermath of the tragedy. The reason this has become a national story is because the man who did it was an NFL player.

Certainly it’s hard to sympathize with Jovan Belcher, who took the life of his girlfriend and then himself, leaving his young daughter without any parents and rattling the Kansas City Chiefs organization to its core. It’s tempting to blame him, to turn him into a monster. But ultimately, it’s hard to blame him either; Belcher’s actions were in keeping with suffering from mental illness. Which brings us to the elephant in the room, the question of whether Belcher’s living, playing the particularly physical position of linebacker, had anything to do with his death.

Five and a half years ago, professional wrestler Chris Benoit took the life of his wife – and didn’t spare his son – before hanging himself. His brain was subsequently examined by neurosurgeons at West Virginia University, who compared it to that of “an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient”, and his father attributed his actions to the effects of repeated bumps to the head over the course of his wrestling career. For a league already haunted by the specter of concussions, as the Saints’ Bountygate appeals continue to drag on, to witness such a chillingly similar turn of events should serve as a reminder of the consequences of this sport’s brutality.

The case of Chris Benoit also, perhaps, suggests exactly what we should make of this tragedy. Before his death, Benoit was one of the more beloved figures in wrestling, but that adoration quickly turned to sadness and anger as most of Benoit’s career was all but forgotten and Benoit himself became a symbol of the effects of the culture of wrestling. Jovan Belcher was hardly a superstar, so perhaps it’s telling that we find ourselves conflicted in how to feel about him all the same. Regardless, while it’s too early to know exactly why Belcher did what he did, it’s entirely possible that in a few years, Jovan Belcher could be every bit as much a symbol of the NFL’s concussion problem as Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears safety who committed suicide nearly two years ago.

The State of Boxing

WWF Superstars, 6/2/12

“Ladies and gentlemen,” says Mean Gene Okerlund, “I’m standing backstage with World Wrestling Federation heavyweight champion Manny Pacquiao, and his manager Bob Arum. Manny, next week you’ll be defending your World Wrestling Federation championship against Timothy Bradley on Saturday Night’s Main Event on NBC, in a match where if you lose, you get an automatic rematch at the Survivor Series pay-per-view Thanksgiving week – ”

“I’m not going to lose, Gene,” Pacquiao interrupts. “I’ve beaten everyone they’ve thrown in front of me for years, and I’m not going to go down now.”

“Well, Mr. Pacquiao,” Okerlund continues, “you’re going up against a former Intercontinental Champion that hasn’t lost a match in the World Wrestling Federation. Are you concerned about the challenge he poses compared to what you’ve faced in the past?”

“I’m not worried,” Pacquiao replies. “He’s never faced anyone as tough as me.”

“Everyone wants you to fight Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, Manny,” says Okerlund. “What do you think are the odds of that happening once he returns from his suspension?”

“If it happens, it happens,” says Pacquiao. “Right now all I can worry about is my match against Tim Bradley at Saturday Night’s Main Event.”

“One last question, Mr. Pacquiao,” says Okerlund. “It’s been reported that your contract with Bob Arum ends at the end of this year, are you going to – ”

“I’m just worried about my match with Tim Bradley, Gene,” says Pacquiao as he walks off.

Later that night, Okerlund conducts another interview with the challenger Timothy Bradley, but only gets one response out of him before Bradley walks off:

“Don’t believe the hype,” Bradley says. “I know how good Pacquiao is. But trust me, there will be a rematch at Survivor Series. I guarantee it.”

Saturday Night’s Main Event, 6/9/12

Pacquiao comes out like a man possessed, whipping Bradley from pillar to post. Bradley can barely get any offense in against the champion, and at one point Okerlund begs the official to stop the fight. But the fight continues, and Bradley starts to come back, getting more and more offense in, eventually getting Pacquiao in his Desert Storm submission move. Pacquiao begins struggling to break the hold… and then the bell rings.

“Did he tap?” asks Okerlund. “I don’t think he tapped!”

Pacquiao looks incensed as Bradley quickly grabs the belt from Arum and runs off with the official raising his hand in victory, boos raining down from the rafters and garbage being thrown into the arena. Pacquiao looks around for Arum, who takes off like a rocket through the crowd. Pacquiao spits in his general direction, then storms off in a huff as Okerlund expresses his astonishment at the spectacle we have just witnessed.

WWF Superstars, 6/16/12

Okerlund informs the audience that WWF Commissioner Jack Tunney will not investigate what happened in the Pacquiao-Bradley fight at Saturday Night’s Main Event, news that does not sit well with the audience in the arena or with Rowdy Roddy Piper, who expresses his displeasure at the outcome in rather colorful language before introducing Pacquiao as the guest of his Piper’s Pit segment. Before he can get a question out, however, Pacquiao grabs the mic from him.

“I don’t want questions, I want answers,” says Pacquiao. “I want Bob Arum to come out here right now. I want him to answer for what he did to me last night.”

“Manny,” says Arum, “I’m as upset about this as you are. What happened to you last night was an outrage, and I have an official complaint in to the WWF Board of Directors. In fact, I’m not going to allow there to be a rematch at Survivor Series until there’s been a full and thorough investigation, I assure you of that.”

Pacquiao ponders these words for a few seconds, then steps up and embraces Arum… before giving him Pac-Man Fever and dropping him through a table, then ripping his shirt off as the fans go wild.

“April 7th,” yells Pacquiao into the microphone. “Me and Floyd Mayweather are gonna have the Fight of the Century at WrestleMania and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it!”

The crowd goes nuts and Pacquiao soaks in their adulation as his theme music plays.

Okay, maybe that’s not what happened, but doesn’t it say a lot that it’s close to what people THINK happened?

What? I never mentioned that I was an Aspie?

By now you’ve probably, possibly, heard of Michael Savage’s remarks calling autism the “illness du jour” and claiming that “99 percent” of autism cases are “a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out”. The ensuing controversy led Slate to publish an article explaining how autism is actually diagnosed. And as a result, until recently the number one most e-mailed story (and still appearing on the list) on Slate had been… Gregg Easterbrook’s report on a Cornell study suggesting a link between television viewing and autism. From 2006.

There have been a lot of proposed theories about the cause of the rise in autism diagnoses over the decades. Chemicals in vaccines were being loudly trumpeted until they were banned and autism diagnoses kept rising (and it was, in retrospect, kind of ridiculous anyway). Some people attribute increased awareness of autism’s existence; others attribute the constantly broadening definitions of autism. Myself, I was turned on by a teacher I had in high school to what might be called the “Darwinist” theory, which probably explains some of my neuroses, both because the idea informs the neuroses and because the neuroses inform the idea: in the information age, so many of the jobs out there require logical processing skills, which autistics tend to naturally possess, so they tend to thrive and reproduce, whereas before they were too socially awkward to get laid. Asperger’s syndrome is the future “norm” of the human race! Get used to it! (Would it be too conceited for me to refer to myself as homo superior?)

The Cornell study, though, is especially interesting to me (protests in the comments and general part of a blame-television tradition aside) not just on its own terms, but even more so because of Easterbrook’s explanation of it. Easterbrook, who had hypothesized a television-autism link even before learning of the study, further hypothesized that for millenia, the human race had been raised on three-dimensional images. Once infants to two-year-olds started being raised on the two-dimensional images of the television set, it warped their minds in who knows what ways.

I would carry this one step further and suggest that autistics literally see the world differently – not merely process the same images differently, but literally see a different picture than a non-autistic. I can see out of my right eye, but I’m somewhat convinced it sort of “turns off” or at least runs on low power when my left eye is open. I can only wink my right eye – even when I think I’m winking my left eye it’s the right eye that closes – and when both eyes are closed I similarly can only open my left eye without using my hands to hold the left eye closed. (I don’t know how normal this is.) I also don’t really see any difference in objects with depth when seeing with one or two eyes; similar to a painting that can give an illusion of depth, proportions and general shapes, not to mention lighting, can make the existence of depth clear even with no depth perception to speak of.

Regardless, autistics serve a valuable role in society if their quirks and talents are properly nurtured and exploited, which is why I’m offended that the WWE is teaming up with Jenny McCarthy’s Generation Rescue charity, whose slogan is “autism is reversible” and which still believes in the rather-discredited mercury-in-the-vaccines and germ theories, and which supports giving “biomedical intervention” to kids as a means of fighting autism (including the “gluten-free diet” approach, which when tried on me, made my problems worse in the short term). By their own admission, “the cause of this epidemic of NDs is extremely controversial”, and much that is on their web site is familiar blame-corporate-America rhetoric and based on questionable research, yet the WWE seems to be treating it as though it’s as uncontroversial as the United Way or Salvation Army. (It doesn’t help that WWE is advertising that McCarthy will be “stepping into the ring to fight autism” as though autism were on the level of cancer or AIDS.)

(Oh, and don’t ask me how I found out about this in the first place when there is shockingly little controversy about it, okay?)

The real “disease” of autism lies with everyone who doesn’t have it, in assuming that everyone fits a certain mold of the “ideal” or “normal” person until it’s too late, and well thereafter. (Which is why I use my “about me” posts to give advice to people trying to deal with me, especially in real life.) Let’s try and keep the uniqueness and talents of those with autism and related “disorders” instead of trying to get everyone to march in lockstep and become just like everyone else.

The Strange Case of Chris Benoit

WWE wrestler Chris Benoit was found dead alongside his wife Nancy and son Daniel on Monday, and all three deaths appear to be the work of Benoit himself.

The reaction to which has led to some interesting insights on human nature, or at least American culture. It seems that people’s revulsion to murder outweighs their sorrow for a figure that, up until his death, was rather well-respected in the wrestling community.

People have overcome their sadness and disbelief and switched to anger at Benoit. Many people are now upset with WWE for dedicating last night’s “Monday Night Raw” to Benoit’s death. (The show was originally to be a memorial service to the fictionally-dead Vince McMahon, but that storyline appears to be dead.) “World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon opened tonight’s Extreme Championship Wrestling episode by saying that Chris Benoit’s name would not be mentioned at any other point during the telecast because of the revelations that have surfaced about the murder/suicide since a Benoit ntribute show aired on last night’s episode of Monday Night Raw.”

Um… what? So a guy (as it is likely to turn out) goes a little insane and kills his family and then kills himself and we focus on the murders? Don’t get me wrong, murder is bad, but does it change all the accomplishments of Benoit’s life? (Okay, I guess it does.) Can anyone really blame WWE for showing a tribute to one of its greatest wrestlers, especially since the “murderer” news hadn’t come out at the time?

Meanwhile, various news outlets are already speculating about the possible role of steroids in Benoit’s rampage, and the whole story is likely to result in a lot of renewed attention towards wrestling that it really doesn’t need…

Sports Watcher for the weekend of 4/14-15

All times PDT.

1-3 PM: MISL Soccer, Detroit at Milwaukee (VS.). Did you know the Detroit Ignition are an expansion team? You wouldn’t be so impressed if you knew four teams make the playoffs… out of a six-team league.

4-6:30 PM: NHL Hockey, Tampa Bay at New Jersey (CBC). Folks in Canada are incenced the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins (w/Sid the Kid) and Ottawa Senators (only Canadian team in the Eastern Conference Playoffs) is not in prime time, and they have to watch an all-American game on CBC, solely to appease NBC. But the worst part is, the game CBC is airing isn’t available nationally in the States! Personally, I blame NBC for not showing any hockey in primetime other than the Finals. If you really want to grow the game so much in the States by force-feeding us Sidney Crosby, would it really hurt to put it in primetime on by far the weakest night of the week, which the Big Four hardly bother to program anyway?

(Before you think “Is that a sign they’re adding insult to injury by throwing CBC a game no one on either side of the border cares about?” consider that the game on Versus pits the 8-seed Islanders “versus” the 1-seed Sabres. Talk about a squash.)

(Incidentially, while CBC recently locked up a long-term deal with the NHL, NBC only re-upped for one more year with an option for a second… which at first glance appears to be a retread of the previous deal, which was similar, until you note that this coming year is also the last year of the NBA on ABC.)

10:30-3 PM: NASCAR Racing, Samsung 500 (FOX). Three drivers have over 900 points out of five with 800. It’s lonely at the top of NASCAR.

5-8 PM: MLB Baseball, San Diego @ Los Angeles (ESPN). It’s Jackie Robinson Day in MLB and Bud Selig is allowing any player to wear his number; the Dodgers, the team that first put him in the big leagues, is one of a few teams doing it for everybody (Mike Cameron is the only one for the Padres). Expect more 42’s than even Douglas Adams could have ever dreamed. Clearly that day will be the day our planet is obliterated for a freeway bypass.

Baseball and hockey pre-empt boxing, TNA wrestling, and BodogFight MMA from the Watcher, but I did find out that my local cable system now shows exactly THREE PPV channels (outside the porn-only channels), which show porno in lighter hours than you’d think. Is “on demand” creating a new world, one which could force boxing, wrestling, and MMA to re-think their strategies as they increasingly become the only reason for PPV’s existence (alongside porn, but that might be headed for “on demand” as well once parental controls are advanced enough to allow it)? Spike TV will carry UFC 70 for free in the States next week in what could be the most watched (by network executives) and most pivotal sports event on television in recent memory. It could be a test that could establish, once and for all, the viability and popularity of MMA, could be a “test of the waters” for boxing and MMA, to determine if cable is financially viable, to determine if it’s time to come out of the PPV shelter and possibly on the road to respectability, and if that part’s successful, it could be one final nail in the coffin for PPV. (What it would do to professional wrestling, for which PPV is an integral part of the business model to the point where a “big event” happens once a month, not once a year, is anyone’s guess.)