6 TV Networks That Aren’t What They Started Out to Be

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Perhaps you’ve seen this recent tweet from The West Wing’s fictional President Josiah Bartlet:

And it’s true — the television home of Honey Boo Boo and her rural Georgia clan was once exclusively educational content. (Not that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo isn’t educational … in its own way…) The network formerly known as The Learning Channel also isn’t the only network to have strayed far from its original purpose. In many cases, money is money, and TV goes where the money is.


NASA, along with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, wanted to show how local education could be improved through educational technology. From 1972-75, the Appalachian Educational Satellite Project gave graduate credit to Appalachian teachers who used the free material delivered by satellite to develop their own courses. The Appalachian Community Service Network (ACSN) channel was then independently incorporated in 1979 and offered 64 hours of programming per week in 42 states by 1982.

In November 1980, it was renamed “The Learning Channel.” In 1991, Discovery Communications bought it, including what was owned by the bankrupt Financial News Network as well as the 35 percent still owned by ACSN. Beginning in 1998, it started going only by the acronym “TLC.” Educational content began to decline, and the network increased reality-style programming.

Content then: Documentaries; science and nature shows; academic, educational programming. Most popular show: Captain’s Log with Captain Mark Gray.

Content today: Reality shows. Most popular shows include Toddlers & Tiaras, Say Yes to the Dress, Extreme Couponing, and the aforementioned Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Watch: You can see all of Captain’s Log with Captain Mark Gray on YouTube. Here are a few PSAs from the show, featuring bad 80s music, Griffin O’Neal (son of Ryan O’Neal, brother of Tatum), and Alan Hale, Jr. (Skipper on Gilligan’s Island):

ABC Family

Have you ever thought that some of the programming on ABC Family didn’t quite fit with the “family” part of the name? There’s a reason. What now airs as ABC Family has been through a lot of hands, but let’s fast-forward to 2001 when The Walt Disney Company (owner of Capital Cities/ABC since 1996) bought the Fox Family Channel. They renamed it ABC Family.

Plan A was to use it for ABC re-runs. Too bad they didn’t own the syndication rights to the stuff they wanted to show.

Plan B was an image makeover. They’d rename it XYZ (as in the opposite of ABC) and sell it to a younger, edgier audience. Too bad nobody read the contract that said the word “family” had to stay in the name forever.

Why? For that, we rewind to its beginning as Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network Satellite Service in 1979. That religious beginning followed the network through multiple sales, each of which has been required to continue broadcasting Robertson’s The 700 Club, hence the reason that show is now bookended by the disclaimer, “The following/preceding CBN telecast does not reflect the views of ABC Family”as well as the network’s slogan of the last few years, “A New Kind of Family.”

Content then: Christian programming from Pat Robertson and other televangelists. CBN Satellite Service was the first satellite basic cable network. Most popular show, The 700 Club.

Content today: A lot of family-friendly sit-com re-runs, movies, and a few original series (such as The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Bunheads).

Watch: In 2008, ABC Family was home to the one and only season of The Middleman, brilliantly written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach (known for being writer and producer on the first two seasons of Lost). The good news is that it’s out on DVD, and you can also get the comic it’s based on. Watch its trailer:


Rainbow Media and Tele-Communications Inc launched American Movie Classics in October 1984. The channel showed classic movies in their original formats, commercial-free and unedited in the evenings. It didn’t have an original program until Remember WENN in 1996, which lasted four seasons and won an Emmy and CableACE award for Carolyn Grifel’s costume design as well as a CableACE for editing.

Similar to TLC, American Movie Classics became almost exclusively known as only “AMC” in 2002. Around the same time, commercials started appearing in the movies it aired, which also became just “movies” rather than “classic movies.” (The channel had long since gone to a 24-hour broadcast schedule.) They considered spinning off a network called AMC’s Hollywood Classics to show the old movies they used to show, but it didn’t work out.

In the last few years, AMC has added documentaries about film and several more original series, including the wildly popular, Emmy-award-winning Mad Men and Breaking Bad. More recently, they decided to venture into reality shows, including Kevin Smith’s Comic Book Men, originally named Secret Stash after the comic book store it’s set in. They’d also planned a behind-the-scenes show, Inside the DHS, that included Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, but cancelled it before it aired.

Content then: Classic movies, mostly from the 1950s, unedited, uncolorized, without commercials.

Content today: Edited films, not necessarily classics, with commercials, and several original series. Most popular shows: The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad.

Watch: Below is the 1985 introduction to It’s A Wonderful Life by Bob Dorian, who long hosted AMC movies. He got started through a conversations about classic movies with Norm Blumenthal on the set of a commercial. When AMC started, Blumenthal recalled Dorian was a classic movie buff and called him.


Ziff Davis Media has dipped its toes in just about everything that could fall under that “media” name, including magazines, websites, podcasts, and TV stations. In 1998, they launched ZDTV, a computer/Internet-oriented network, which was sold to Vulcan Inc. (Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s investment company) and renamed TechTV.

TechTV had some great geek-friendly shows, like The Screen Savers and Call for Help. In 2002, it was the top-ranked cable network for men ages 25-54 in Nielsen’s VPVH (Viewer per 1000 Viewing Households).

Elsewhere that year, Comcast launched a network for gamers called G4 with 13 original series that had specialties from cheat codes (Cheat!) to art in gaming (Cinematech). It wasn’t long before Comcast dropped TechTV from its lineups to boost viewership of G4. In 2004, G4 Media bought TechTV and brought the two networks together as G4techTV, a name that stuck for less than a year.

Now G4 (and the little that’s left of TechTV’s spirit within it) is a network marketed to men and about more than games and tech. Last month, Variety reported, “G4 is going less geek, more chic.” According to the report, G4 will become more modern-man, less frat-house.

Content then: Gaming. More gaming. A lot of gaming. (And for its predecessors, a lot of technology and the Internet.)

Content today: Re-runs of Lost, COPS, Heroes, and Knight Rider when not providing extensive annual Comic-Con reporting. Most popular shows include Attack of the Show! and X-Play.

Watch: Since it’s almost Halloween, grab these old instructions for carving a pumpkin with Tux, the penguin mascot of Linux, from a 2002 episode of The Screen Savers, then watch this clip from another episode about making an old-style Tron costume.


With more channels than any of us can ever watch and online shows to boot, it’s sometimes hard to remember that at one time, one channel number on the TV could hold more than one network. In 1984, the Arts and Entertainment network launched in the 9 p.m.-midnight block when Nickelodeon’s programming ended for the day. It was billed as “Television people can look up to.” Many people saw it either as a welcome addition or frightening, cable-based competitor to PBS. The network focused, as the name implies, on arts and entertainment programming. At one point, it also became an American source of BBC shows and other international programs. In 1985, they got their own 24-hour spot (which is also when Nick at Nite began).

In the late 1980s, the network started its own original programming, most notably Biography, which was originally a Mike Wallace show on CBS in the early 1960s. A&E started making new episodes in 1987, and it eventually became so successful that they spun off The Biography Channel based on it. Reading the list of featured people is like watching the target interest of A&E change, as it moves from Henry Ford, H.G. Wells, and Susan B. Anthony to more recent shows with titles like Hollywood: From Homely to Hot.

The name was shortened to only A&E in 1995 and in 2003 started marketing with the line “The Art of Entertainment,” which implies something quite different from simply “Arts and Entertainment.” Now the network leans toward a combination of reality shows and true-crime shows.

Content then: Documentaries, biographies, and the arts.

Content today: Reality shows, including Gene Simmons Family Jewels, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and Criss Angel Mindfreak.

Watch: Here’s the sign-on that was used when Nickelodeon went off and Arts and Entertainment came on:


Bravo has a similar tale to that of A&E, sans name change. It was founded in 1980 as a network for commercial-free airing of programs “dedicated to film and the performing arts.” Three similar channels began at the same time: ABC ARTS (Alpha Repertory Television Service), CBS Cable, and NBC’s The Entertainment Channel. (Remember how A&E used that Nickelodeon nighttime block? ABC ARTS had had it for the previous two years.) Time called this four-way competition “cable’s cultural crapshoot.” Only Bravo survived.

Partly responsible was the choice to add film, which set Bravo apart from those competitors. By 1985, nearly 70% of the network’s programming was films, mostly international or classics. The other 30% was concerts, ballet, opera, and other arts programming.

The commercials started coming in the mid-90s, but the content didn’t change much. In 2002, NBC bought Bravo. In 2003, it too turned to reality TV, starting with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, an instant hit. Then along came the many Real Housewives, Top Chef, and Project Runway, turning yet another arts-oriented channel into the home of seemingly endless reality shows.

The network does continue to air James Lipton’s Inside the Actors Studio, a series of thoughtful and truly insightful interviews with actors, directors, and musicians filmed as seminars for students at Pace University’s Actors Studio Drama School, that has been on the air since 1994.

In 1985, The New York Times wrote, “Bravo is a survivor of the once ardent battle to bring culture to cable.” In 2005, Lauren Zalaznick, president of Bravo, called Battle of the Network Reality Stars “the smartest show we’ll produce this year.” What a change two decades can make.

Content then: The arts, classic film, international film.

Content today: A focus on pop culture with a lot of reality TV. Most popular shows include Real Housewives of [Every City Ever], Top Chef.

Watch: I may sound a bit harsh on reality shows at this point, so I’ll confess to having had a weakness for Queer Eye when it began. Here’s that show’s Jai Rodriguez in a different role–singing Glinda’s “Popular” from the musical Wicked.

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