06/26/2012 11:38 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2012

The Reality of Cable TV

The summer TV season is already in full swing, as you may already know based on the plethora of posters and promotions for shows like Breaking Bad, Suits, Royal Pains, The Newsroom, and so on. The History Channel kicked off the summer craziness on Memorial Day, with its miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. My curiosity was piqued by this series' commercials, and so I found myself watching it over a three-day period. But what was even more entertaining than the actual show were the commercials for other History Channel shows that ran during those three nights. The commercials -- for reality TV and pseudoscientific programming like Swamp People, Pawn Stars, Ice Road Truckers and Monsterquest -- drew me in for their sensational qualities, and from a brand perspective, my curiosity was equally piqued. What did these shows have to do with history?

The trend of jettisoning a brand's original DNA in favor of ratings is everywhere in cable right now -- and as a branding professional, I wonder how that will affect the overall branding of TV in the long haul. Back in the '80s and '90s, a slew of TV networks launched with names that clearly communicated the type of content viewers would find there. Animal Planet, Discovery, Bravo, A&E, The Learning Channel, The History Channel. They came at branding the traditional way: establishing a brand positioning, coming up with a name that is reflective of this goal, and then creating messaging and communications that convey the brand promise. But they could not hold onto this approach from a business proposition, and before long, networks were saying, "Screw the brand; I need sales."

Which brings us to the sad state of cable TV offerings today. When I flip through the channels, I literally have ZERO idea which network I am watching. Mob Wives is on VH-1, Viral Video Show is coming out on the SyFy channel, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is on TLC (formerly The Learning Channel), Best Ink is on Oxygen. But couldn't any of these shows appear on ANY network?

Yes, and that's because networks have pretty much thrown brand discipline out the window for the dollar. Originally, they held true to their brands, with Bravo offering arts entertainment and the History Channel airing documentaries on World War II and fascist leaders. But the second the networks saw business going away, they sought out the content -- often sensational, reality-based programming -- that people wanted more. They chased the lowest common denominator instead of taking the time to cultivate their network offerings. In other words, they've mortgaged the future by getting rid of the brand.

Part of the problem is that these networks limited themselves from the get-go with their names, making what was once their strongest asset -- for example, cuddly animals on Animal Planet -- into their weakest links. They need to pander to audience tastes in order to get advertisers, instead of airing what they really want to show. Even when a network claims to want to change course by adding quality scripted programming -- MTV comes to mind -- they end up adding three different Jersey Shore spin-offs in order to get ratings (do we really care about Snooki's pregnancy?!).

On the flip-side, you have quality networks like Showtime and HBO (Home Box Office) that have names broad enough to accommodate a variety of programs, and a subscription-based model that means they don't have to answer to advertisers. This is what enables those networks to be a little riskier in their programming, renewing shows like the recently heralded Girls and Veep based on terrific reviews, instead of booming viewership. A few riskier, non-subscription based networks, like AMC and FX, have renewed cult-favorite shows like Mad Men and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia simply because they enhance their reputations as quality programmers (did you know that Mad Men, for all the hype, actually doesn't get huge ratings?).

Perhaps the most interesting of all network models today is not a network but a web site and subscription service. Hulu -- a joint venture between NBC-Universal, FOX and Disney-ABC -- builds on the notion that since audiences have very little network loyalty, why not give them all of the programs they want across all networks, for a "pay as you watch" fee? It's still unclear what Hulu stands for as a brand, but the model seems to work -- now.

And while I'm unsure as to where networks and channels will go with their businesses in the coming years, there's one thing I do know: Audiences want the simplicity of knowing what their programs are, where they can find them and -- best of all -- that they'll be able to connect with their content. Until the MTVs, A&Es and TLCs deliver on this, I'll be looking forward to seeing The Real Housewives of Pawn Stars on Cartoon Network.