Nets under fire for blurring brand

As Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man” would say, “Uh oh.”

That Oscar-winning film ranks as a modern classic — a designation that seldom applies these days to cinematic offerings from American Movie Classics, which ditched its original moniker for the less oppressive (and utterly meaningless) “amc.” Failure to be sufficiently “classic” violated AMC’s agreement with Time Warner Cable — or at least, that’s what a Manhattan judge decreed last week.

Debating which movies qualify as “classic” is surely great barroom fodder, but the ruling raises a larger question, since basic cable nets have been rushed to program edgier, younger-skewing fare while simultaneously abandoning long-established profiles.

What would happen, then, if system owners cast open Pandora’s Box and actually began demanding cable nets live up to their names?

The answer is, one rollicking mess. Plenty of channels have already diluted well-worn brands by diving into cable’s alphabet soup, shedding confining images of classics, arts, science and education.

TLC is no longer “the learning channel.” A&E jettisoned that troublesome “Arts & Entertainment” tag, allowing the net to schedule “Growing Up Gotti” and “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” The Game Show Network became plain old GSN, fearing that a younger audience wouldn’t thrill to the sight of Chuck Woolery and Wink Martindale.

The Discovery networks didn’t change their names, but they have revised their programming — indulging in fantasy-themed flights like “Alien Planet” and “Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real,” which appear better suited to Sci Fi’s domain. And while it’s called Fox Reality, a few of that new channel’s wares wouldn’t pass any close inspection under FDA-type truth-in-labeling guidelines.

No one expects Time Warner — which operates its own legitimately classic channel, Turner Classic Movies — to drop AMC, though it will likely try to negotiate a more favorable deal with the net’s parent, Cablevision’s Rainbow Media unit. Although cable channels are obligated to operate within existing descriptions, Time Warner is said to be more persnickety than most operators regarding such matters, and such disputes seldom go public.

Nevertheless, if AMC ran afoul of the Time Warner cable system’s watchful eye, an equally strict reading of other contracts (assuming they haven’t already been amended) would throw many deals into a tizzy. After all, AMC’s movies might not always be classics or even American, but at least they’re movies, which is as close as many of the aforementioned channels currently come to their programming roots.

A Time Warner Cable spokesman declined to discuss relationships with other channels.

To be fair, cable nets have experienced significant commercial pressure to depart from deeply ingrained templates. Mature channels can’t hope to expand distribution, so the best hope to increase revenue hinges on higher ratings — particularly within the key demographics that media buyers tyrannically demand.

So goodbye classics (translation: old), learning (boring) and arts (snooty). Hello, Spike, and a lot of hollow acronyms.

Then again, cable isn’t alone in crowding toward the sweet spot of young-adult demos. Take the WB, which has delivered another blow to kids TV by announcing plans to discard its Kids WB afternoon lineup in January.

The replacement? Reruns of “ER” and “8 Simple Rules.” That should teach the little tykes how to rush a gurney down a hallway and deal with rambunctious teens.

If the business rationale is understandable — ads aimed at kids have migrated to cable, including WB’s Time Warner-owned sibling Cartoon Network — the move highlights how broadcasters have bailed out on children’s programming, essentially mailing in their obligation to provide top-notch fare for the 15% of U.S. homes that don’t subscribe to cable or satellite TV.

Keeping children’s TV alive in the broadcast spectrum, in fact, remains public television’s best selling point amid all the brouhaha surrounding its financial underwriting and alleged political leanings. Whatever one thinks about “Frontline” or Bill Moyers, it’s hard to find many Scrooges who’ll quibble with Big Bird and Barney.

Of course, there are those who would rather keep kids away from the TV altogether, but parents and educators who recognize the enriching role media can play in child development should at least support PBS on this front, inasmuch as public TV itself hasn’t conveyed this message forcefully enough.

As for the WB, the shift moves the netlet further away from founder Jamie Kellner’s vision, which saw kids as a cornerstone of appealing to a younger audience.

Everyone grows up sooner or later, but if the WB is losing interest in kids, maybe it’s time to fricassee that dancing frog.

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