Discovery's Proliferation Marks Cable TV Trend

Discovery Channel isn't just one cable channel. It's 13 channels, including TLC, Discovery Kids and, starting Wednesday, Planet Green. It's evidence of an increasingly common business model in cable television — spinoffs of successful cable channels.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Back in 1992, Bruce Springsteen was already overwhelmed by cable TV.

(Soundbite of song, "57 Channels")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) We switched 'round and 'round till half-past dawn. There was fifty-seven channels and nothin' on. Fifty-seven channels and nothin' on.

MONTAGNE: Now there are hundreds of channels and tonight the Discovery Channel is launching yet another one. It's using one of cable's current business models: taking a successful cable channel and creating spin offs to target a more specific audience. NPR's Alison Bryce reports.

ALISON BRYCE: If you want to watch this new channel, Planet Green, you've got to go way, way up. If you're in Oklahoma City, it's on channel 286.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Man #1: The television network dedicated to living green: Planet Green.

BRYCE: Planet Green President Eileen O'Neill says one of her favorite shows is called "Battleground Earth" - Ludacris versus Tommy Lee.

Ms. EILEEN O'NEILL (President, Planet Green): Two mega musicians, you know, from the rap world and the rock world, and they did everything from learn about methane produced by cow poop to junk mail issues in Atlanta to green funerals in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Battleground Earth")

Unidentified Man #2: What?

LUDACRIS (Rapper): His name is Toxic Tommy.

Mr. TOMMY LEE (Drummer): Easy, Luda the Polluta?

LUDACRIS: Luda the Polluta? Is that the best you could do?

BRYCE: Planet Green is only one of 13 Discovery channels in the U.S.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Child: On Discovery Kids.

Unidentified Man #3: On Discovery Health.

Unidentified Man #4: On the Science Channel.

Unidentified Man #5: Only on TLC.

Unidentified Man #6: Only on Animal Planet.

Unidentified Man #7: Only on the Discovery Channel.

BRYCE: The Discovery model - having a parent channel and creating lots of baby channels - is a common practice all over cable. Look at MTV, and then look at MTV U, VH1, VH1 Soul and on and on. and what makes so many channels possible is that space opened up with satellite and digital cable. Subscribers may have 300, 400, 500 channels.

Chuck Thompson of Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau.

Mr. CHUCK THOMPSON (Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau): Consumers want more choices. It's about passions. It's about pursuits. They want to have the opportunity to go to something they are in love with.

BRYCE: Thompson says the more narrowly focused a channel, the better the advertisers can pinpoint their audience. Advertisers who buy space on those home improvement shows on the DIY Network or the Military Channel know exactly who their audience is.

Mr. THOMPSON: This is a channel. There are people who will go there. And advertisers will zero in on that.

BRYCE: One problem with so many channels is finding the ones you really want to watch. Lynette Rice from Entertainment Weekly says that cable networks have given up on asking viewers to remember which channel is which number. Viewers rely on brands and logos.

Ms. LYNETTE RICE (Entertainment Weekly): So they've stopped looking at numbers, and they're just looking for those three or four letters they hold so dear. They're looking for BRA for Bravo or OXY for Oxygen or obviously WE for the WE Channel.

BRYCE: Another problem is that it's hard to fill 24 hours of original programming.

(Soundbite of TV show, "SpongeBob SquarePants")

Mr. CLANCY BROWN (As Mr. Krabs): SpongeBob!

BRYCE: There's going to be a lot of repeats.

(Soundbite of TV show, "SpongeBob SquarePants")

Mr. BROWN: SpongeBob!

BRYCE: Nick at Nite plays "SpongeBob SquarePants" 29 hours in a week, for example.

(Soundbite of TV show, "SpongeBob SquarePants")

Mr. BROWN: All right, here we go. I give you Krabby Land.

(Soundbite of children cheering)

BRYCE: Even though there are so many repeats, Rice says there is more original programming than ever before.

Ms. RICE: But given the fact that there are so many cable channels out there, the chances of finding a network that has an original show that you haven't seen before are greater because there's so many choices.

BRYCE: Americans are watching more television - more than 32 hours a week. And according to Nielsen, they're watching less of it on the big broadcast networks. More people are watching more cable. Channel 957, anybody?

Alison Bryce, NPR News.

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