Toys R Us announced this month that the company might get out of the toy business, which is simply an irresistible media story — as if Fatburger suddenly decided to serve seared Ahi and veggie platters.In television, however, such jarring shifts are actually old news. Obsessed with the ever-elusive fountain of youthful demographics, TV networks have jettisoned identities with the sort of alacrity swimmer Michael Phelps brings to an Olympic pool, dropping inconvenient designations and squeezing incongruous fare into their lineups. The whole branding issue, in fact, has become a confounding one. Cable once appeared to have the problem licked but clearly not all networks have mastered the formula, while broadcasters have learned that breakout shows tend to define them rather than vice versa, as surprise hits (and when is a hit not?) invariably lead in unexpected directions. That reality makes rigid brand adherence difficult, though some of the major networks look especially scattershot in cultivating this year’s development crops, raising questions about the potential fallout. As one veteran exec puts it, “You need a point of view, or it’s just a hodge-podge.” Certainly, ESPN, CNN, Nickelodeon and MTV still stand for what they always did, but a number of other cable channels have taken the risky step of vacating hard-won niches to blend into cable’s alphabet soup. By this logic, American Movie Classics transformed itself into “amc,” removing the pressure to run movies, be classic or even stay American. Once positioned as cable’s answer to PBS, Arts & Entertainment goes by A&E — letters that can now accommodate the disjointed “reality” concepts “House of Dreams” to “Growing up Gotti.” Game Show Network found that mantle too confining (or old), becoming GSN, which sounds like a dietary supplement. Even the History Channel is less historic, Discovery seems more about monster cars than the wonders of science, and the Learning Channel is just plain TLC. Granted, some of these gambles have paid off handsomely. TLC’s “Trading Spaces” became a major (and much-imitated) success, FX is now a haven for boundary-pushing dramas, and Bravo shed its high-brow image and made itself over into a gay-tinged pop-culture mecca — for want of a better term, the “Will & Grace” channel. What some of these networks have lost, however, is their default appeal — that is, viewers knowing precisely what they’ll find without bothering to check local listings. Cable used to boast that such channels were a “destination,” little oases that segments of the audience view as a home base. This applies to me during college football season, when on any given Saturday I’ve been known to leave ESPN and Fox Sports on from 9 a.m. until the Hawaii game wraps up past midnight. By contrast, what’s on A&E right now? Once the answer would have almost surely been either “Biography” or some British costume drama. Now, your guess is probably as good as the people responsible for programming it. Major broadcasters have never been quite so neatly defined, yet they’ve also enjoyed deeply ingrained profiles. Despite various efforts to adapt, CBS remains a little older and more rural, NBC skews urban, ABC is more family-oriented and Fox is still the bratty kid exemplified by Bart Simpson. Those umbrellas have also encompassed specific “brands,” as identifiable as Tide or Crest. Take ABC’s association with family sitcoms thanks to “TGIF” — a brilliant marketing tool that helped sell a lot of crappy comedies — or NBC’s “Must See TV” franchise. Today, franchise encounters are of a more literal kind, defined by CBS’ three versions of “CSI” or NBC’s cop-shop quartet of “Law & Orders.” Again, though, what’s being sacrificed? The smart ensemble dramas that once characterized NBC (“L.A. Law,” “ER,” “The West Wing”) have given way this season to escapist fare modeled after “Las Vegas” (“LAX,” “Hawaii”), feeling like a throwback to the pre-”Hill Street Blues” era. ABC is introducing some promising series this fall, but there’s no ostensible rhyme or reason connecting them, reflecting a semi-desperate strategy of throwing darts and hoping one or two find the bull’s-eye. CBS has the clearest marching orders, and as is so often the case, sister network UPN revised its identity the old-fashioned way — by stumbling into it, thanks to the popularity of “America’s Next Top Model.” Then there’s Fox, where the stalwart “American Idol” somehow flourishes apart from the network’s profound state of schizophrenia. In Fox-world, ratings-malnourished critical favorites such as “Arrested Development” co-exist with tawdry reality concepts that are kept locked away from critics, rather like the insane wife in “Jane Eyre.” Even the WB network, the one broadcaster that possessed a crystal-clear marketing vision, is citing a desire to broaden the channel’s appeal beyond that youthful base — including the “Hee Haw”-like sketch show “Blue Collar TV,” which, as one producer observed, “sticks out like a sore thumb.” As for getting older, the median age of WB hot moms has crept from 36 all the way up to 39. Of course, this target-shifting talk by the new exec regime was hardly necessary when shows like “Smallville” and “Dawson’s Creek” actually connected with the WB’s core demo, as opposed to some of the ill-conceived misfires that have followed. Few words have been more over-used than “branding” in recent years, but in such a crowded environment, there’s obviously a rationale for establishing a shorthand relationship with potential viewers — fostering some expectation of what they’ll see when they tune in. To use an extreme example, I haven’t studied schedules, but still flip on the Olympic Games nightly, in much the way Turner Classic Movies can generally be counted on to provide a black-and-white respite from brightly colored alternatives. Both cable and broadcast networks can still break through the clutter, but it’s only logical that those seeking to share their treasures would at least offer program-hunters a rudimentary map. Otherwise, viewers just might determine that Your Network Aren’t Us and opt to take their toys and go home.
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