Attack of the 500-channel monster

Once upon a time in the U.S., there were three networks. Each of them ran children's programs for four hours on Saturday mornings. And this was the only outlet--not merely for children's television, but for children's entertainment, period.
October 1, 2001

Once upon a time in the U.S., there were three networks. Each of them ran children’s programs for four hours on Saturday mornings. And this was the only outlet–not merely for children’s television, but for children’s entertainment, period.

This was an era in which computers were the stuff of science fiction. Future pioneers of the video game industry were probably in detention somewhere, throwing spitballs. The phrase ‘CD-ROM’ would have been mistaken for a transcendental meditation mantra. Since most people didn’t have VCRs, really lame nerds who wanted to ‘record’ something would take a still photo of the television screen. (Yes, I still have mine.) And the Internet? It was but a glimmer in the eye of a young Al Gore.

SMASH CUT TO: MIPCOM 2001. Today there are more entertainment options than there are calories in a French dinner. And not merely television outlets, but enough different and diverse entertainment media to constitute a virtual smorgasbord for kids. (Why is it that whenever MIPCOM rolls around, the metaphors all seem to revolve around food?)

While the U.S. is certainly more extreme in the number of channels available, in terms of the trend of channel proliferation, it is probably fairly representative of most territories around the world. In most places, the small number of television networks that once constituted the sum total of viewing choices have been augmented by cable, satellite and additional terrestrial channels.

And now, here comes the next wave of proliferation–the rollout of digital television. Maybe.

Now, I know in today’s world, digital is always cool and always better. Well, call me analog, but I’m just not sure digital TV is a good idea. It seems that in most cases, the additional bandwidth is not being devoted as much to enhancing the quality of picture and sound as it is simply being used to create more channels. And not necessarily better ones. One wonders if anyone has asked the simple question, ‘Do we really need more channels?’

In the U.S., we’re already in a ‘narrowcast’ environment in which there is truly a diversity of channels, each serving a smaller, more targeted, often idiosyncratic niche audience. In fact it seems to me that we have channels for almost any demographic and interest imaginable–and not only the many kids and animation channels familiar to KidScreen readers.

Is there really anyone out there who cannot find what they want on TV? What will be next? The Male Pattern Baldness Channel? The Dry Cleaning Channel? The KidScreen Columnist Channel? (Don’t think we haven’t been approached.)

Granted, many territories don’t have the selection of channels that we Americans do. Tragically, they are forced to make up for it by having better public schools, better health care and more polite children. But the germane question is, do they have the market to support new channels–any more than the U.S. can support many more new channels without all of television suffering due to increased fragmentation?

Whether a channel is funded by advertising, subscription or subsidy, there is always going to be a limited amount of money in each territory’s total television financing universe. As the channels proliferate, the money fragments, production budgets plummet, talent is spread thin, and fewer productions can be afforded.

In recent years, one of the networks launched separate digital ‘boyz’ and ‘girlz’ channels, only to pull the plug on both 11 months later. I wonder if it was because they realized the market was saturated? It also makes me wonder if digital TV will simply result in kids more often using the digits on their hands to zap the remote to ‘off.’

Now you’ll have to excuse me because I’ve got an appointment with the Fat-Free French Food Channel.

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