In the Palm Springs, Fla., offices of the Triangle Television Network, news that Viacom was launching a gay cable television network met with mixed reaction.
Triangle, a gay network available on satellite, had been trying to get picked up by cable providers for years. With Viacom — the parent company of Nickelodeon, MTV, Showtime, and Black Entertainment Television, among many others — entering the market, Triangle's dream seemed endangered.
But instead, Triangle's phones began ringing off the hook as a phenomenon of niche programming took hold: Once one channel breaks through, it opens the gate for more networks targeting even narrower segments of that market. After teens got their MTV, baby boomers needed to rock to VH-1. And sports fans choose between ESPN, ESPN-2, MSG, and Fox Sports.
With over 100 channels on the cable roster, there's been a furious spawning of specialized programming over the last 20 years or so. There's the Style Network for fashionistas, Nickelodeon for kids, Court-TV for lawyers, not to mention a smorgasbord of channels dedicated to celebrity news, decorating, cooking, game shows, women's issues, soap operas, and weather.
Many of these channels are in their second decade of business and many are huge successes. But when just about every interest, hobby, age group, gender, genre, and culture has its own channel, have we reached a saturation point?
No, according to broadcast historian Michael Collins, an adjunct professor of communications at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn. Television has always been a mirror of American society, he contends, and the more the country changes and grows the more channels there will be.
"It is hard for any single format to reach a whole group," said Collins. "The Spanish networks have had this problem for a long time, trying to appeal to everyone." In fact, cable viewers can soon expect a second Spanish language channel, Telefutoro, geared at young Latinos.
But not everyone is thrilled with cable's current clutter. Matthew Felling, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said the value of the old system was that people didn't have the option of watching just golf or music videos all day. Niche programming actually limits viewers' exposure to different forms of entertainment and culture by allowing them to isolate themselves in their own interests.
"You can just expose yourself to the information you choose," Felling said. "Television used to offer us a balanced diet. Now we can just watch dessert," he said. It's no surprise, he said, that most niche programming is focused on different entertainment genres, not current events.
Yet the cultural debate may be pointless in the face of powerful economic and technological forces.
"The technology and the capacity of the cable systems certainly point to proliferation," said Michael Lewellen, vice president of corporate communications for Black Entertainment Television.
In the world of cable, success is about distribution. When BET launched 22 years ago, it aired for two hours a week on Friday night. Cable systems serving urban areas jumped at the channel, but systems serving largely white suburban areas were a harder sell. Today, BET is a 24-hour network reaching 71.3 million households.
"We pioneered new ground that added to the initial attractiveness. Fortunately for us, the world at large became so diverse," noted Lewellen. Unlike new networks launching today, BET did not have 100 channel systems, satellite TV and digital cable creating a constant demand for new offerings.
"What the technology gives you is a higher quality of signal, a higher quality of product and broadens the reach and scope to reach audiences physically," he observed.
There's also the matter of the 270 million televisions in the U.S.— almost one per person.
Despite that demand, when Triangle initially started up, they were told there was no place on cable for a gay network. But the attitude reversal may have more to do with economics than with social change. Gays have a disposable income of $500 billion, said Chris Haggett, Triangle's vice president of marketing, and are brand loyal to companies that reach out to them. Triangle has been extremely successful selling advertising contracts to major corporations trying to tap into those billions.
"The dollars are there," Haggett said.
And there lies another impetus behind niche programming. At a time when general ad sales are down, the need to penetrate new markets can persuade advertisers to take a chance on something new.
This spring, BET, which has already spun off Jazz TV and BET International, will launch Gospel TV and BET Hip-Hop on digital cable.
"It allows us to broaden our demographic," Lewellen said. More, it seems, begets more. Now, at a time when new and existing networks are making huge plays for African-American audiences, BET scored its best ratings ever.
Certainly, the parallels between a black network two decades ago and a gay network in the new millennium cannot be ignored: The social issues overcome by financial potential, the acceptance and crossover audiences that come with mass exposure. And of course, even more channels.
"I think more niche programming will follow, young gays, a channel just for gay women," Collins predicted.