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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 the high culture and educated viewers, toward sensational, ratings-based, and/or reality-TV programming designed solely for the entertainment of a mass audience. Channel drift frequently features the incorporation of infotainment, reality television, and/or heavy advertising into the channel's lineup.
Networks primarily focused on a particular topic, such as History Channel, tend to add shows that the channel's management feel that a larger audience wants to see, thus leading to additional profits. 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 2005, so the network began transitioning toward a general sports network known today as NBCSN. Conversely, WGN America abandoned its expensive sports packages in 2014 as part of its drift from a Chicago-centric superstation into a nationally oriented general entertainment channel.
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 to include content such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit reruns and WWE professional wrestling. (The wrestling moved to USA in 2016.) Another example is the conversion of Court TV to truTV, which allowed it to show more reality-based programming (though initially retaining a law enforcement focus, such as repeats of World's Wildest Police Videos) and slowly phase out their advertising-averse legal system and courtroom programming. This process ended in October 2009 when the remaining courtroom analysis programs transitioned to CNN.com's legal news section and occasional court coverage from CNN Center on the mainline channel. TruTV now airs competitions and hidden camera prank shows, and even the first three rounds of the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship. TruTV was further reformatted to a more conventional reality network with a strong emphasis on comedy on October 27, 2014. Other examples include the drifting of The Learning Channel, which has officially renamed itself under the three-letter orphan initialism "TLC" since its transition to primarily reality television series, and that of most 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. The music videos on the main channel were eventually limited to overnight and morning time periods, and were eventually pushed to spinoff networks MTV2, then to MTV Hits. MTV2 itself would gradually drift from an all-music video format to include reruns of MTV programs, original series, and acquired off-network sitcoms.
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, only to drift back toward general entertainment in 2015 and become the Paramount Network.
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 and young adult audiences similar to that of ABC Family. Nick at Nite 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 and MeTV have emerged to fill this gap with their programming being primarily 1950s–1960s television shows; even those networks have left older content to early hours in their broadcast day for more recent content.
Nickelodeon's cable channel Nicktoons is another example of channel drift. In 2014, Nicktoons added sports content to its lineup to little viewer interest, but the block continues as three of the programs (NFL Rush Zone, WWE Slam City and Wild Grinders) were produced by sports leagues or to promote Viacom personalities on other networks (for Wild Grinders, MTV host Rob Dyrdek). Recently, Nicktoons' schedule has begun to feature live-action sitcoms on a cyclical basis, depending on the current output and success of Nickelodeon's animated series.
One of the earliest examples of channel drift, and one that predates modern 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.
Another 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 and knockoffs of other networks' hit shows. Beginning with the major success of American Idol in the early 2000s, Fox drifted away from this reputation; its dramas and sitcoms became more conventional compared to the Big Three television networks and it put less emphasis on reality programs later in the 2000s (decade).
Another case of channel drift is HLN, which started as CNN2. Its main program was a news block named Headline News. The channel later changed its name to CNN Headline News to reflect this. By 2005, its programming included programs such as Showbiz Tonight and by 2013, it had ceased its main program Headline News and shifted toward crime mysteries and docudramas, showing programs such as Forensic Files.
The latest case of channel drift was Destination America. Originally launched as a replacement for Planet Green on May 2012, Destination America aired a variety of programs focusing on American culture—including food, lifestyles, and travel. Since 2017, it took a detour to focus on a paranormal format full-time.
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 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 high-profile efforts of Cartoon Network to carry live-action series or specials have been unsuccessful and short-lived, though lower-profile efforts with little expectation of success have maintained minor success. 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.
The former Family Channel is one of the few known instances in which the amount of channel drift allowed was 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 was required to contain the word "Family" for the next 25 years (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 in perpetuity as part of a long-term time-buy. Following its sale to News Corporation, CBN made another long-term time-buy on the station to air a daily 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 planned to reformat the channel as "XYZ" (a reverse reference to the American Broadcasting Company's abbreviation) and shift its target to a more hip audience such as college students or young women; possibly to avoid redundancies with the existing family-friendly Disney Channel. To create XYZ, Fox Family 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 (something that, in modern times, is fairly common, but would have been much more disruptive to one of the most widely distributed channels on cable). Nonetheless, under the ABC Family brand, the channel 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. Disney further denied the "Family" stipulation existed in late 2015 when it announced plans to rename the channel "Freeform" in January 2016. In February 2009, Disney XD was originally launched as a boy-oriented TV channel, with the parent channel's shows aimed mostly at girls aged 13 - 16. Four years later, after the network was found to have a surprisingly high female audience, Disney XD added some programs with female protagonists, such as Kim Possible and Star vs. the Forces of Evil, while maintaining a mostly action-driven format.
In more recent years, networks have started abandoning the idea of channel drift as some of the channels experienced poor results. AMC (originally an outlet for "American Movie Classics") drifted successfully into scripted short-form television in the late 2000s (see Mad Men, The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad) but its efforts to drift into reality shows were mostly unsuccessful, prompting the network to cancel all but one of the reality shows en masse and focus on its movie and scripted programming. USA Network, which built a niche for light-hearted hour-long dramedy series through the 2000s, attempted to augment that with traditional scripted comedies but mostly backed away from that approach in 2014.
Outside the United States
In some 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. The South African Broadcasting Corporation originally had its 3 main channels dedicated to specific ethnic groups and their home languages. SABC 1 primarily broadcasts shows that target the Bantu-speakers, while SABC 2 focused on Afrikaans programming and SABC 3 aimed at the English-speaking South Africans. Anti-apartheid propaganda and prejudice against Afrikaners caused SABC2's Afrikaans programming to be gradually replaced with English despite its high viewership. The lack of Afrikaans programming, along with the launch of DStv's rival Afrikaans-channel KykNET, caused the once-popular SABC2's viewership to decline. The SABC has been met with strong criticism over its treatment of Afrikaans programming on SABC2.
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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