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The ABCs of TLC, GSN and A& E: Niche networks skew younger to avoid ending up MIA

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, October 30, 2009

Starting Friday, the Weather Channel will interrupt its coverage of whatever tsunami, blizzard, hurricane or tornado is making life a perfect hell for folks in some neck of the world to bring you . . . an old movie.

And in January, GSN will divert its unending stream of vintage and new game shows to bring you the newest iteration of the Carnie Wilson Is Trying to Lose Weight Again reality series.

It's the latest round of highly targeted niche networks looking to beef up -- or young up -- their audience by veering off point. It seems to be a rite of passage played out over and over again.

Remember when the letters TLC stood for The Learning Channel and the network brought you educational and informational programming as opposed to Jon and Kate's divorce-o-rama? Remember when A&E stood for Arts & Entertainment and competed with PBS for sumptuous British-made crunchy-gravel period dramas like "Vanity Fair" and "Horatio Hornblower"? Or when AMC stood for American Movie Classics and aired movies that were actually "classic" and not cut up with commercial breaks? When Syfy was Sci Fi? When MTV meant Music Television and was the destination for medicated viewing of rock videos? Good times.

Sadly, those networks' original identities are long gone and they've become part of the Great Cable Gobbledygook, bringing us a steady stream of inexpensive reality series, reruns of broadcast TV series, old flicks, more reality series, an original scripted program or two, and did we mention reality series?

"Carnie's relatable life story is a perfect fit with our viewers, who are eager to discover the person behind the personality," Kelly Goode, GSN's senior VP of programming, said when it made the announcement -- though we can't imagine what's left to "discover" about a chick who has already put pretty much everything about herself out there, up to and including a Web stream of her gastric bypass surgery in 1999 -- the first time she tried to lose weight for our entertainment. Wilson hosts GSN's "The Newlywed Game."

"Adding films to our Friday night lineup is a great way for us to further demonstrate how weather is an all-encompassing part of our lives that entertains and inspires us," Geoffrey Darby, the Weather Channel's executive VP of programming, said when that network recently made public its movie plan, starting with "The Perfect Storm" and also including "March of the Penguins" and "Deep Blue Sea."

If you could swallow that horseradish, you had no problem when he said:

"From the Nor'easter in 'The Perfect Storm' to the tornado that takes Dorothy to Oz, weather has a long history as a film star."

Darby knew better than to try to explain how the Stephen King horror flick "Misery" fit into the whole "weather" brand -- the network has scheduled it for Friday the 13th (of November). He left it to a publicist to tell the New York Times that the flick featured "a blinding snowstorm, so the weather plays an important role in the plot, even if it's not the main character."

Even so, some reporters weren't buying this hooey, including trade publication TV Week, whose managing editor Chuck Ross wondered: If "Misery" passed the smell test, did that mean the Weather Channel would soon add "Animal House" to its movie repertoire because "the high jinks really heat up whenever John Belushi is on the screen?"

* * *

When a network stops referring to itself by its full title and starts using only its abbreviation, that's usually a sign changes are ahead. GSN, for instance, used to stand for Game Show Network. In its Carnie Wilson is Going to Lose Weight on TV Again announcement, it was all GSN this and GSN that.

Another sign that change is in store is when the head of programming tells The TV Column:

"I think the brand, which we see as 'competition entertainment,' allows for a lot of flexibility," Goode opined. The audience gives you permission to put on different things within your brand. . . . I recently thought of it like a menu in an Italian restaurant that will be the regular menu and always mixing in a variety or specials."

(In fairness, it's not the first time GSN has done a reality series about one of its hosts. It ordered six episodes of "Chuck Woolery: Naturally Stoned" back in '03 when he was hosting its game show "Lingo" -- and the network was still calling itself the Game Show Network.)

Though many cable networks have tried to change their stripes, the Mother of all Overhauls was that of the Network Formerly Known as Arts & Entertainment.

"Five years ago we had a big median-age issue," A&E President and General Manager Bob DeBitetto told us. "The median age of the network was about 62 years old. With the possible exception of the Hallmark Channel, it was the oldest-skewing cable network -- period. That's a problem, regrettably. It's a challenge for those of us that are in the advertiser-supported industry because . . . ad agencies target demographic delivery."

"Target demographic delivery" is a politically correct way of saying "discriminate on the basis of age" -- advertisers pay networks far less if they attract older viewers.

"We decided at some risk to begin to transform our programming approach, to introduce A&E to an entirely new generation of viewers," DeBitetto explained.

Good bye, "Horatio Hornblower"; hello "Growing up Gotti."

With a prime-time lineup that includes rehab reality series "Intervention" on Mondays, a Philadelphia Parking Authority reality series called "Parking Wars" on Tuesdays, Duane Chapman's reality series "Dog the Bounty Hunter" all night Wednesday, crime investigation reality series "The First 48" on Thursdays and reruns of CBS's "Criminal Minds" on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the median age of the A&E audience now hovers in the mid-40s.

"I'm proud to say A&E will be this year . . . Number 6 in 18-to-49-year-olds" among all cable networks, DeBitetto said.

The Network Formerly Known as the Learning Channel also gets high marks for its brand overhaul among industry pundits, who cite its innovation in creating and promoting its freakish reality series -- including "Toddlers & Tiaras," about baby beauty queens and their frightening parents; and "Say Yes to the Dress," a makeover series; and the self-explanatory "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant."

And, of course, the whole Aren't You Glad You're Not Jon or Kate saga. Yes, TLC has a real brand now. It has nothing to do with learning.

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