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.

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