The Nation's Pulse

Cable Copycats

Basic cable's basic problem is that it's afraid to walk on a tightrope.

By 6.22.12

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A survey conducted by the marketing-research giant GfK reports that 6.9 million American homes dropped cable and satellite television last year. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. homes report watching free television to the exclusion of pay television. Most of the people who no longer pay for pay TV cite the price they had to pay for TV as the determining factor.

So why can't Comcast, Dish Network, and other industry leaders pry more dollars from more viewers? The economic decline is the obvious, general answer. But more specifically people ditch their dishes as much for the declining value of the on-screen product as for the declining money in their pockets.

Before the recession hit our wallets it hit our living rooms. Like Mexican pesos or Dutch tulips or Las Vegas condos, an oversupply of reality television and celebutainment cheapens the overall product -- and in more ways than one.

Basic cable's basic problem is that it repeats ad nauseam what it never should have aired in the first place.

The E! Channel plays 34 hours of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and six episodes of its Khloe & Lamar spinoff, this week. One of the episodes wasn't a repeat.

On Tuesday night, A&E played ten consecutive episodes of Storage Wars, appropriate viewing for offenders in a post-apocalyptic detention center but certainly not for paying customers. In case you missed this week's loop, A&E will rerun the reruns for ten hours straight starting this coming Tuesday at 6 p.m. EDT. There is also Storage Wars: Texas, which is different from the original in that the protagonists wear cowboy hats and exhibit drawls.

If wealthy vultures expropriating the belongings of people so poor that they can't pay rent on a storage shed doesn't strike you as must-see-TV, A&E also offers Parking Wars, a series on the mundane matters of meter maids meting out tickets to scofflaw motorists. They played twenty straight episodes on Thursday. Even Rita wouldn't seem so lovely after ten hours.

It's impossible to tune in if you haven't already tuned out.

MTV features programming starring skateboarder Rod Dyrdek for nearly a day-and-a-half of its seven broadcast days this week. In MTV's halcyon days, even Duran Duran never appeared as much as Dyrdek and his montage of wipeouts, faceplants, "credit cards," and "popsicles" does now. Dyrdek's main promotional vehicle, Ridiculousness, is his third MTV show. In addition to the 47 times that MTV shows the half-hour program this week, sister network MTV2 airs it a dozen or so times, too.

Networks increasingly repeat channels as they repeat shows.

As if all this wasn't tedious enough, the ubiquitous Ridiculousness is a knock-off of another oft-repeated program, Comedy Central's Tosh.O, which, like its imitator, largely relies on viral videos of people partaking in incredibly stupid stunts already viewed by millions of people on the net.

A&E, Bravo, MTV, and so many other cable channels once possessed unique identities. Now they're just facsimiles of one another. Copycatism, not creativity, rules pay television.

Anyone who caught a glimpse of free TV last Friday may have caught a glimpse of why so many have retreated from pay to broadcast television.

ABC, a network created in response to the FCC's crackdown on duplicate "chain broadcasting," devoted two primetime hours to Nik Wallenda walking across the Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Unlike Mob Wives or Jersey Shore, that's not something that you see every day. The program not only topped all others for the evening, but it proved the most watched non-sports summer program in six years as well.

Everyone has seen real housewives bicker and Kardashians behave like hookers. Nobody had ever seen anyone walk across the Niagara Falls on a wire.

Walking at night in the mist and wind for 600 yards 200 feet above the Niagara River is expensive, imaginative, and daring -- everything that cable television isn't.

When there were but a handful of stations the late Shel Silverstein rhapsodized in "Channels" about the tedium of television, concluding that it might be more interesting to talk than watch. Bruce Springsteen, writing in a post-cable world, lamented "57 Channels and Nothin' On." The Boss shows the idiot box who is boss by blasting it. Mike Judge certainly got a bead on the future in Idiocracy when he foresaw the popularity of a program called "Ow! My Balls!" If he had prophesied a dozen such shows instead of one he might now be considered a modern-day Nostradamus.

ABC took a walk on the wire to great success. Highwire may not be highbrow (neither is television). But it is different. Or perhaps it was different -- here come the cable copycats. 

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.