Five hundred channels and nothing to watch, unless of course you're into pawnshops, weddings, cupcakes or guys rummaging through attics, barns or storage units.
It's an exaggeration, of course, but at one time the 500-channel cable universe promised a show for every niche; indeed entire networks for many niches. What cable viewers instead got isn't an infinite variety of anything, unless you consider the infinite (well, 19) offerings in the pawnshop "genre" that have hit the dial since "Pawn Stars" made its debut on History Channel two years ago. Oh, and cupcakes -- lots of shows about cupcakes. And hoarders. Most recently "Confessions: Animal Hoarding," because Animal Planet couldn't be left out of the fun.
Among basic cable's other highlights? Tattoo parlors, dangerous/hazardous jobs, human trainwrecks, weddings, real estate and all kinds of things going down in the swamp ("Hillbilly Handfishin,'" anyone?).
It's true that networks have been ripping each other off since there were just three of them, and no fewer than 14 Westerns landed on network TV in the '50s and '60s, all a twist on the genre defined by "Gunsmoke." Indeed, you could argue that the entire pawnshop oeuvre is no more than a few twists on the old PBS battle ax "Antiques Roadshow," which itself remains oddly addictive.
"Television has never been a particularly innovative medium; when a network finds a successful concept, they clone it over and over and over," said David Scardino, entertainment specialist at RPA, who evaluates programming for Honda.
But the pace at which new programming concepts are copied and devoured has clearly sped up, and it's no secret why: advertising. All cable networks start out life appealing to a demographic or psychographic niche, and cable operators pick up channels to create the widest possible variety for their pay-TV offerings. Over time, two goals become paramount: to get a bigger audience and to get a younger audience.
But getting bigger and getting younger is tough. Just ask CBS. With an average viewer age of 56, CBS has known its audience for decades and has a very good sense of what works and what won't. MTV , on the other hand, has been very successful at getting big and staying young, but that means a lot of guesswork -- and also knowing what worked today probably won't on the next generation of 20-somethings.
The easiest, cheapest way to accomplish this is to just grab what worked for someone else. A&E, for example, is 10 years older than it was when it was airing syndicated scripted dramas. "Pawn Stars" is routinely the top show on cable and often beats broadcast competition. The pie of ad dollars isn't growing, and now that 91% of the country subscribes to pay TV, the pie of viewers isn't growing much, either, meaning the easiest way to get another network's viewers is to bogart its format.
"They will do anything that expands the brand and brings in viewers. But they are fighting amongst themselves for the same viewers," said Brad Adgate, VP-research at Horizon Media.
Eating each other's young is a game of diminishing returns. The copies rarely exceed the original, and they just wear out the format faster. What's worse, the networks' own brands start to blur together in a world of sameness. "What programmers fail to realize is that new programs became successful because they were distinctive; viewers don't want clones, they want something new and different," said independent TV analyst Shari Anne Brill.
The irony is that at a time when the FCC is considering new rules to grant more access to independent networks, the presence of more networks has the opposite effect: more of the same.
That doesn't mean the networks don't at least aspire to break the tragedy of the commons. A&E Exec VP-Programming David McKillop said there's another way: "You create a genre and the category-killer in that genre. Then you move on."