History, TLC, and the Phenomenon of 'Channel Drift' (VIDEO)

Dan Clarendon
History Swamp People
Donald Bowers/Getty Images for History's Swamp People

Remember when MTV played music? Or when TLC was all about learning? If so, you’ve witnessed “channel drift.”

Also known as “network decay,” channel drift is a television network’s gradual move away from its original purpose. Granted, networks sometimes drift for the better, as AMC viewers can attest. But it’s hard not to be cynical when your favorite niche cable network starts airing reality shows and wrestling bouts.

Below are eight examples of channel drift — we’ll leave it to you to decide if these evolutions were upgrades and downgrades.

AMC

American Movie Classics launched as a showcase for classic films. Now referred to simply as AMC, it's a major player in Hollywood thanks to the gangbusters success of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead.

History

There’s nothing much historical about reality shows like Ice Road Truckers, Pawn Stars, and Swamp People. History has also waded into pseudo-history with its long-running show Ancient Aliens.

Logo TV


Launched in 1995 to cater to LGBTQ+ viewers, Logo TV suffered a blow in 2017 when Viacom moved its flagship reality series, RuPaul’s Drag Race, to VH1. Now the channel airs classic sitcoms with little queer and trans representation—e.g. Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, and Married… with Children.

MTV


Younger viewers might be surprised to know MTV originally stood for Music Television and aired music videos non-stop. Now it's a reality TV fan’s paradise, thanks to franchises like Teen Mom, Jersey Shore, and The Challenge.

Syfy


Syfy is a rare example of a channel that drifted and then drifted back. After the erstwhile Sci-Fi Channel rebranded as Syfy in 2009, the network ventured away from science fiction fare, even airing professional wrestling shows ECW and WWE SmackDown. But in 2017, Syfy rebranded itself again and recommitted to its sci-fi roots.

TLC


TLC’s educational content ("The Learning Channel") seems like a distant memory, now that shows about 90-day fiancés, dress-shopping brides, sister wives, and quintuplets have taken over the schedule.

truTV


The channel that began its life as Court TV has shifted away from televised court cases and towards reality—see: Black Gold and Hardcore Pawn—and even prank comedy, like Impractical Jokers and The Carbonaro Effect.

TV Land


Launched in 1996 as a spinoff of Nick at Nite, TV Land originally appealed to the Baby Boomer set with reruns of shows like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Gunsmoke. In 2015, however, it rebranded with a focus on Gen X-ers, though its hit comedy Younger arguably appeals to even younger generations.

USA

Once known for “blue-sky” programming including Psych, Burn Notice, Royal Pains, and other light-hearted dramas of the mid-2000s, USA has embraced a grittier tone in recent years with shows like Mr. Robot, The Sinner, Queen of the South, and Briarpatch.