Channel drift or network decay is the gradual shift of a television network away from its original programming, to either target a newer and more profitable audience, or to broaden their viewership by including less niche programming. Often, this results in a shift from informative, quality programming aimed at educated viewers, toward sensational, ratings-based, and/or reality-TV programming designed solely for the entertainment of the masses. Channel drift frequently features the incorporation of infotainment, reality television, and/or heavy advertising into the channel's lineup.
Networks that focus on a particular genre, such as Golf Channel and History Channel, tend to air shows that the channel's management feel that viewers want to see, in order to expand to a larger audience and thus earn additional profit. By producing irrelevant or low-quality programming they can increase their ratings to a target audience, increase viewership and increase revenues. The degree of channel drift can vary: some of the nonconforming programming may retain some degree of association with the channel's original 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 known today as NBCSN.
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. 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 heavily male-oriented program lineup now known as Spike. While Nickelodeon has largely remained a children's-oriented channel throughout its history, its late-night Nick at Nite programming block (which for Nielsen ratings purposes is a separate channel from Nickelodeon) has drifted greatly from airing classic television (first from the Golden Age of Television, later expanding to shows from the 1960s and 1970s), to more recent shows still airing in local syndication, to its current focus on adolescent/young adult audiences similar to that of ABC Family. Nick at Nite, in fact, launched TV Land as a spin-off channel due to its increased focus on more recent programming (as well as the elimination of non-sitcom programming on Nick at Nite), only for TV Land itself to eventually shift to more recent programming and even original programming. In recent years, networks such as Cozi TV have emerged with their programming being majority 1950s-1960s television shows.
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 for lowbrow, alternative programming. 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 some low budget reality shows such as Skating with Celebrities and The Choice.
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, but again drifted away from its forecasting coverage into a mostly reality show-oriented lineup by 2014, at which point another carriage dispute (this time with DirecTV, which indeed dropped The Weather Channel in favor of WeatherNation TV) prompted the channel to go back to all-forecasts during the day at least temporarily to restore its reputation. Most of the efforts of Cartoon Network to drift into live-action series have typically been unsuccessful and short-lived, although its late-night Adult Swim programming block (which like Nick at Nite is to Nickelodeon is a separate channel from Cartoon Network) has had more success airing live-action programming.
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. In 1990, CBN agreed to sell the network to International Family Entertainment, but with strings attached: 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 it is 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, CBN (despite no longer owning the channel) added an additional requirement that the channel air a half-hour CBN talk show, then known as Living the Life, to the lineup. 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). 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, ABC Family has drifted from its strictly family-friendly format under Disney ownership; the channel gradually dropped series aimed at children from its schedule and incorporated programs aimed at young adults featuring profanity, some violence, and some sexual content, alongside its family-oriented series and films, and now airs a standard disclaimer before each broadcast of The 700 Club in which The Walt Disney Company disowns any connection to the show.
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 NBCSN), while the Canadian version of the Oprah Winfrey Network has received several notices from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission due to attempts to avoid the licensing requirements it has as an educational television network under its original title, Canadian Learning Television.
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.
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