Pay-TV Channels Enter Potemkin Programming Era

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Cheyne Gateley/VIP

By now it’s a foregone conclusion that the cable TV networks that have been Hollywood’s primary profit engine for decades are in a state of secular decline as entertainment conglomerates shift their energies to launching streaming platforms.

But just how this decline is being managed by these businesses while they continue to operate these channels has become painfully clear recently. 

Consider 2020 the beginning of pay TV’s Potemkin era: Programmers’ M.O. is to pull back content resources for cable channels and hope viewers won’t notice or care about the difference.

Just look at Paramount Network, which ViacomCBS disclosed last week is rebranding to reflect new focus on a made-for-TV original movie powerhouse at the expense of airing unscripted programming and long-form scripted series. 

Then there’s NBCUniversal’s once mighty cable portfolio, which The Wall Street Journal exposed last week is living on borrowed time as brands like Syfy and Oxygen consolidate back-office functions. 

Earlier this year, AT&T CEO John Stankey told investors cable powerhouses including TNT and TBS would lean away from scripted in favor of unscripted as WarnerMedia’s high-end scripted budget would go toward HBO Max.

And who can forget the disclosure that unscripted series “Ridiculousness” accounted for about 70% of MTV’s 168-hour lineup at one point in June.

Surely it’s no coincidence that many general entertainment channels have suffered double-digit drops in ratings lately. Those drops occurred as cord-cutting has accelerated in recent years.

But let’s not forget what cornerstones unscripted shows have been to nets such as TLC, which has produced over 400 hours of “90 Day Fiancé”-related programming, and A&E, which has reportedly lost half of its viewers since dropping “Live PD.”

As an increasingly economically challenged populace questions the value of their expensive pay-TV subscriptions, do any cable programmers really believe consumers won’t notice the anemic content supply? Moving those resources from linear TV to streaming is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

Still, it’s hard to believe the Potemkin programming era will end in the near future, with streaming continuing to account for a bigger portion of consumers’ time spent with media. 

So don’t be surprised if you continue to see cable networks experiment with heavily relying on one unscripted show or franchise. And don’t bank on the wave of scripted original for-cable series cancellations to stop anytime soon.