Channel drift, or network decay, is the gradual transition of a television network away from its original programming focus to either target a newer more lucrative audience, or to broaden their viewership by including less niche programming. Often, this results in a shift from highbrow programming aimed at more educated viewers, toward lowbrow programming aimed at a wide audience. Almost all versions of channel drift feature some sort of incorporation of infotainment and/or reality television into a channel's lineup.
Networks that focus on a particular genre, such as Golf Channel and History Channel, tend to air shows outside of this scope that the channel's management feels that the viewers would also like to see, by balancing the needs of expanding a network's audience while continuing to service a channel's most loyal viewers. The degree of channel drift can vary: some of the nonconforming programming may have a loose association with the channel's intended purpose (such as in the case of the History Channel, Pawn Stars, American Pickers and Top Shot), while other programming may have no association whatsoever (such as Ax Men and Ice Road Truckers). Channel drift can also result from the acquisition of sports rights or reruns of popular television series that would otherwise not fit the channel's format; Outdoor Life Network, for instance, acquired the rights to the National Hockey League in 2004, which required the network to begin transitioning toward a general sports network.
A channel may rebrand itself to more accurately reflect its new content. Sci-Fi Channel changed its name to Syfy for both trademark reasons and to allow a stretching of the network's definition of appropriate programming, including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit reruns and WWE professional wrestling. Another example is the conversion of Court TV to truTV, which allowed it to show more reality-based programming (though retaining a law enforcement focus, such as repeats of World's Wildest Police Videos) and slowly phase out their advertising-adverse legal system and courtroom programming, a process which ended in October 2009 when the remaining courtroom analysis programs transitioned to CNN.com's legal news section, and unpromoted and reduced court coverage from CNN Center on the mainline channel (however, TruTV retains a courtroom program called In Session on weekday mornings). TruTV even airs the first three rounds of the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship. Other examples include the drifting of the former The Learning Channel, which has officially renamed itself under the three-letter acronym "TLC" since its transition to reality television series, and that of virtually all of the MTV Networks.
MTV Networks were a pioneer in channel drift. Music Television (as MTV was originally known) was originally a channel devoted to popular music videos upon its launch in August 1981, but began adding entertainment and reality programs geared toward a young adult audience in the 1990s, beginning a progression toward its current focus of reality and scripted programming targeted primarily at teenagers and young adults (the music videos on the main channel were eventually limited to overnight and morning time periods, while transitioning to MTV2 (which itself would gradually drift from an all-music video format to include reruns of MTV programs, original series and acquired off-network sitcoms), then to MTV Hits). Video Hits One likewise began as an outlet for adult contemporary music before transitioning to an urban pop culture channel as VH1; Country Music Television drifted to southern culture and general rerun programming as CMT; and The Nashville Network, perhaps the most dramatic, drifted to general entertainment format as The National Network and then to a male-heavy program lineup now known as Spike.
One of the earliest examples of channel drift, and one that predates cable television, was CBS. During the late 1960s, CBS had a reputation as a network with a disproportionate number of shows that targeted rural and older viewers, which were seen as less attractive to advertisers. Beginning in 1970, incoming network vice president Fred Silverman orchestrated the rural purge, in which these shows would be canceled in favor of shows targeting younger, suburban viewers with more disposable income.
An unusual example of channel drift is the case of the Fox Broadcasting Company. Throughout its early existence, and even after its ascent to major network status, Fox had a reputation as a lowbrow, alternative network notorious for its "knockoff" programs and often absurd reality and game show programs. Beginning with the major success of American Idol beginning in the early 2000s, Fox drifted away from this reputation; its dramas and sitcoms became more conventional compared to the Big Three television networks, as did its reality shows, although the network does occasionally still schedule "knockoff" reality shows such as Skating with Celebrities and The Choice for its lineup (nevertheless, even these shows are relatively tame compared to the level of absurdity in Fox's pre-Idol programming).[original research?]
Channel drift is not always successful, and can often lead to backlash. The Weather Channel, for instance, faced severe backlash for its attempts to add movies to its lineup (already having drifted from all-forecast programming into reality shows for much of its lineup over the course of the previous decade) in 2010. In addition to numerous complaints, Dish Network even went so far as to threaten to drop the channel and had a replacement channel, The Weather Cast, ready for launch (The Weather Cast actually made it to air for about three days, but Dish never dropped The Weather Channel). The Weather Channel backed off and has not aired any movies since. Most of the efforts of Cartoon Network to drift into live-action series have typically been unsuccessful and short-lived.
ABC Family is the one of the few known instances in which the amount of channel drift allowed on the channel is limited to some degree. Launching as religious network CBN Satellite Service (a cable extension of televangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network) in 1977, it later incorporated family-oriented secular programs by 1984, which became the channel's dominant form of programming for nearly two decades. After The Walt Disney Company acquired the channel from News Corporation in 2001, Disney decided to reformat the channel as "XYZ" (a reverse reference to ABC) and shift its target audience to a more hip audience such as college students or young women (possibly to avoid redundancies with the family-friendly format of Disney Channel). This plan was aborted because of contractual stipulations imposed by Robertson following the channel's 1990 sale to International Family Entertainment in which the channel's name must contain the word "Family" permanently (having incorporated the word in its name since 1988 as The CBN Family Channel, then as The Family Channel and later Fox Family after being sold to News Corporation), and that it be required to air CBN's flagship program The 700 Club twice each weekday as well as a day-long CBN telethon each January (following its sale to News Corporation, a requirement that the channel air a half-hour CBN talk show, then known as Living the Life, was also added among the stipulations). To create XYZ, the Family Channel would have had to cease to exist – Disney would have had to create XYZ as an entirely new network, and negotiate carriage agreements with pay television providers from scratch. However, it has drifted from its strictly family-friendly format under Disney ownership, ABC Family gradually dropped series aimed at children from its schedule and incorporated programs aimed at young adults featuring profanity, some violence and sexual content, alongside its family-oriented series and films.
Outside the United States
Channel drift tends to be most common in the United States, where cable and satellite television channels are almost completely unregulated by that country's federal telecommunications regulator. In other countries, cable television channels are subject to the rules and regulations set forth by each country's communications bureau and must be licensed accordingly. For example, some countries (for example, Canada) have regulations that stipulate some channels' purposes when authorizing them, particularly for those channels that were licensed for the purpose of providing underrepresented subject matter. This can prove problematic for channels in those countries that share a branding with their American counterparts; for instance, Outdoor Life Network still exists in Canada due to the requirements of the channel's original conditions of license, long after the American OLN abandoned that branding (the American OLN is now known as NBC Sports Network).
Radio format drift
To a certain extent, channel drift can also occur in radio, especially music radio: see, for instance, the transition from oldies to classic hits, beautiful music to smooth jazz, and MOR to adult contemporary. In these cases, channel drift occurs when a format's older music becomes less popular or profitable (often due to the fans of that music dying, retiring and leaving the area, or aging out of advertising demographics) and newer music is inserted into the playlist to draw younger listeners.
Examples of channel drift
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- Action - added reality series
- Mystère - shifted from drama programming to mystery, suspence and thriller genres programming as addiktv.
- Aux - run movies with no relation to music
- BiteTV - shifted from a youth-oriented channel to a comedy channel. (The channel sometime run non-comedic movies, however)
- bpm:tv - added hip-hop, mainstream pop, and rap music videos
- Bravo – dropped most highbrow arts programming and added more mass-appeal drama series in the early 2010s. However its CRTC conditions of licence regarding arts programming were strict enough to prevent it from converting to a reality-based format like its former U.S. namesake.
- Country Canada - shifted from rural-themed programming to entertainement programs as bold; now rebranded as Cottage Life
- Discovery Channel – changed from educational programming to primarily popular science, automotive, lifestyle and reality series, along with fictionalized specials misrepresented as documentaries like its U.S namesake.
- G4 – added non-technology programming; this was later removed due to pressure from CRTC
- Historia – followed much of the shift towards reality programming of its English equivalent, History
- History – followed much of the shift towards reality programming of its U.S. namesake
- Independent Film Channel – addition of more mainstream as well as low-cost made for TV pictures and television series (though it continues to air some films unedited for content), name later truncated to IFC like its U.S. namesake
- Lonestar - shifted to western programming channel to a movie channel with limited series as MovieTime
- MuchMusic – added reality, comedy, and scripted programming with only a tangential (if any) relationship to music; also often referred to as simply Much
- MuchMoreMusic – added reality and scripted programming with relationship to music; rebranded as M3 in Autumn 2013.
- Music Television - shifted from youth-oriented programming to reruns of programs from the current MTV and MuchMusic
- Music Television 2 - shifted from a different genre music videos channel to an all request channel as PunchMuch; now a channel devoted to kids music videos as Juicebox
- Movieola - shifted to short films programming to older films from the 80's and 90's as Rewind
- MusiquePlus – added reality and other programming with only a tangential (if any) relationship to music; the programming (expect for music blocks and specials) differ from the former English-language counterpart, MuchMusic
- MusiMax– added reality and other programming with only a tangential (if any) relationship to music; the programming differ from the former English-language counterpart, MuchMoreMusic
- Oprah Winfrey Network – changed from an educational format (as "Canadian Learning Television" and later "Viva") to a lifestyle format aimed at women; the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission mandated that the channel must comply with its license requirements to have 55% of its weekly schedule consist of educational programming in March 2013 to avoid the revocation of Corus Entertainment's license for the channel
- Prime - shifted to general interest programming aimed for a 50 and older audience to a "travel" channel as DTour
- Sun News Network - shifted towards an "all-talk" format
- talktv – originally a talk show-focused channel; shifted to mainly youth-focused reality and lifestyle programming upon adopting the MTV brand
- Teletoon channels – added limited live-action programming
- A&E – shift from highbrow cultural programming ("arts and entertainment") to reality television
- American Movie Classics – addition of original drama series, more recent movies and infomercials, and abandonment of uncut, commercial-free format for films
- Animal Planet – changed from mainly educational programming about animals to reality series related to animals as well as mythical creatures
- BET – decreased reliance on news and talk shows, to an emphasis on original scripted and reality shows, feature films and repeats of sitcoms and drama series aimed at an African American audience
- Boomerang – addition of more contemporary cartoons and limited live-action programming; unlike some cases of channel drift, the original programming was not displaced and now airs in rotation
- Bravo – shift from highbrow cultural programming to reality shows aimed primarily at a female and gay audience; transitioned from premium channel to basic cable channel and later abandoned its commercial-free format
- Cartoon Network – shifted from an archival outlet (that format is now on Boomerang) to an animation showcase with an increased prominence of original and Canadian-imported animated series; added adult-oriented cartoons and sitcoms in the overnight and live-action programs
- CBN Cable Network/The Family Channel – shift from religious programming to mainly family-friendly general interest programming; later shifted again to programs aimed at varying demographics including teen dramas as ABC Family; abandonment of game shows; incorporated programs with more risqué content (a contract stipulation with the channel's original owner Christian Broadcasting Network limits the amount of channel drift allowed on the channel and prohibits its rebranding)
- Cable News Network – addition of documentary films, and reality programming alongside conventional news programming and news discussion programs
- College Sports Television (CSTV) – added some professional sports and rebranded as CBS Sports Network
- CNBC- has added reality shows and documentaries alongside the usual economic news
- Court TV – shift from legal news to law enforcement programming and now as a reality format as truTV
- Destination America - Initially a travel-themed network similar to the Travel Channel, the network has since added reality shows and other irrelevant programming
- Discovery Channel – changed from educational programming to primarily popular science, automotive, lifestyle and reality series, along with fictionalized specials misrepresented as documentaries. Discovery historically resisted channel drift to a certain extent, but that resistance ended after one of the channel's programmers quit in protest of pressure on her to drift the channel to its current form.
- Discovery Wings – originally a network documenting aircraft, it was later rebranded as the Military Channel after increased focus on warplanes.
- Disney Channel – shifted from a premium channel focused on a broader family audience to a basic cable channel aimed mainly at pre-teens (though largely remaining commercial-free, except for occasional underwriter sponsorships) with programming having little connection with the work of Walt Disney; removed music and variety specials; reduced amount of films it broadcasts from half of its daily schedule to inconsistent once daily airings (while in turn, scaling back amount of theatrically-released feature films, and increasing its reliance on original made-for-cable movies); dropped most acquired series in favor of original productions
- Disney Junior – Originally an attempt at competing with the Nick Jr. channel, the network later added shows originally intended for older children such as The Lion King's Timon and Pumbaa and Jungle Cubs in the overnight hours. The shows have since been removed and replaced with general programming aimed at younger children.
- ESPN - has added some content unrelated to general sports in recent years (such as poker), mostly as filler; abandonment of more obscure sports and event rebroadcasts and increase in use of SportsCenter during the day
- ESPN2 – drifted from extreme and alternative sports to a sports-talk and secondary sports outlet for ESPN
- ESPN Classic – reduction in reruns of sporting events from the distant past and addition of syndicated series reruns, movies and recent sporting events. Most reruns of classic sporting events are now on other networks (e.g. classic baseball rebroadcasts are now on MLB Network).
- ESPNEWS - now airs live sports events in case of conflicts with other events on ESPN and ESPN2
- ESPNU – airs a weekday simulcast of The Herd radio show from ESPN Radio, whose topics include both professional and college sports
- Fine Living – switched from a general lifestyle format to primarily instructional cooking programs, eventually relaunched as Cooking Channel
- Fox Sports World – dropped non-soccer programming and changed to Fox Soccer, eventually became general entertainment FXX
- Fuse – shift from underground music to popular music, incorporated some series and films related to music. The old format has been taken over by Havoc[disambiguation needed].
- FX – abandonment of interactive studio programming and classic pre-1990 series, switched to a format of recent series and movies, and added original comedy and drama series similar in style to those found on premium channels (most comedies were later spun off to FXX)
- G4 – shift from video games and technology to more mainstream male oriented programming, currently in closedown mode
- Game Show Network – added poker and blackjack, reality television and improvisational comedy series; cut back on (but did not abandon) archival programs
- Gospel Music Channel – added non-gospel programming and shifted to a family-friendly rerun lineup as "UP"
- Headline News – change from 24/7 news programming to include newsmagazines and crime-related programs during the nighttime hours, rebranded as "HLN"
- History – added non-historical reality programming, as well as shows on cryptozoology, UFOs and the occult.
- History International – added more U.S.-based history programming and largely took over the historical programming abandoned by its sister network History; rebranded as H2 in 2012
- Home and Garden Television - has since dropped all gardening related programming in favor of House Hunters and similar shows.
- Independent Film Channel – addition of more mainstream pictures and television series, and eventual abandonment of commercial-free format (though it continues to air some films unedited for content), name later truncated to IFC
- INSP – shifted from a televangelism outlet to an outlet for family-friendly reruns (some televangelism remains on the network)
- MSNBC – change from news and technology programming to primarily liberal political news-talk programs and documentaries during evenings and weekends
- MTV – shifted from music videos to mainly reality shows, comedies and dramas; no longer refers to itself as Music Television
- MTV2 – also shifted from music videos (MTV2 was originally created to take the place of MTV's former all-music video format as the flagship channel added other programming) to primarily a mix of original and MTV-produced reality shows, and sitcom reruns with some music-related programming
- MTV Tr3s - has added English-language programming
- Nick at Nite – gradual shift from classic sitcoms and half-hour dramas from the 1950s to the 1970s to more recent sitcoms from the 1980s to the 2000s. Most of the older shows were transferred over to TV Land before that network also began emphasizing the eighties to 2000s.
- Nickelodeon Games and Sports for Kids - originally a network featuring Nickelodeon game shows from the eighties to present; the network later added youth-oriented programming aimed at promoting outdoor activity; the network was later replaceed by TeenNick, which features teen-oriented programming along with "The '90s Are All That", a block of 1990s Nickelodeon programs, shown from primetime to latenight hours.
- Noggin – shift from edutainment programming aimed at younger children to chiefly preschool-oriented programs; later rebranded as Nick Jr.. The network has also added a latenight block intended for mothers entitled NickMom.
- Outdoor Life Network – addition of arena events and eventual switch to general sports programming as Versus and then as NBC Sports Network. Original format still occasionally seen during daytime hours.
- Prevue Guide – gradual shift from a television listings service as Prevue Guide/Channel and TV Guide Channel toward general entertainment programming and television-related specials as TV Guide Network and later TVGN; gradually abandoning its scrolling listings grid at present
- Sci-Fi Channel – shift from solely science fiction, fantasy and supernatural-themed programming, to include reality-based competition shows and wrestling as Syfy.
- Speed – emphasis on automotive programming in favor of motorsports programming, eventually became general sports channel Fox Sports 1. The network has slowly been replaced by Velocity.
- Sundance Channel – change from solely independent films, to a mix of movies and reality television series
- TLC – changed from educational programming (The Learning Channel) to reality shows as TLC.
- TNN – change from Southern oriented programming (The Nashville Network) to young adult oriented programming (as The National Network), rebranded as Spike
- TBS – changed from general-interest programming to a mainly comedy-based format (though a very limited number of dramatic films continue to air); abandonment of superstation status (its originating Atlanta station is now WPCH-TV), and dropped sports events from Atlanta-based teams in favor of national sports coverage
- TNT – changed from general-interest programming to a format of mainly drama/comedy-drama programs (though a very limited number of comedic films continue to air)
- Toon Disney – addition of live-action programming, eventually relaunched as boy-oriented Disney XD
- Travel Channel – shifted from travel shows to shows involving travel in some form
- TV Land – addition of original programming and acquired series from the 1980s to the 2000s; abandonment of variety shows and rural sitcoms. Many of the shows previously aired on TV Land are now on MeTV or The Hub.
- VH1 – shift from music to urban reality programming aimed at urban audiences.
- VH1 Classic – shifted from an all-music video lineup to a mix of music videos, concerts, documentaries, at least one talk show, movies and comedy reruns (some of which have no connection with its primarily music-oriented format, such as Married... with Children and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show)
- The Weather Channel – change from 24/7 weather-reporting to primarily reality shows, some of which are not (directly) related to weather
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