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GUEST BLOG: Welcome Our Newest TV WORTH WATCHING Contributor -- P.J. Bednarski
March 19, 2009  | By P.J. Bednarski

[The site redesign is about a month away, and I'm still Smothers-ing. But the veteran army of TV critics and experts hopping aboard TV WORTH WATCHING is about to grow, and I couldn't be more excited or proud. As a taste of things to come, here's the first salvo from one of our new contributors: veteran TV critic and editor P.J. Bednarski.

His impressive credentials appear at the bottom of this blog. But first, here's his take on Sci Fi Channel's recently announced name change, to Syfy. Please read, and enjoy, and welcome him to the fold. I've known the guy for decades, and he's terrific...]

Sci Fi to Syfy: Wy O Wy?
By P.J. Bednarski

syfy-logo.jpgYou may have read Stuart Elliott's advertising column in The New York Times Monday (3/16), in which he reported that in July the Sci Fi Channel will rename itself -- or respell itself, I guess -- and become Syfy. The trouble, as Elliott relates, is that executives concluded spelling Sci Fi like that was limiting -- Sci Fi, the channel, is also about superheroes and reality shows, which are, in their minds, just cousins of science fiction. Also, you can't trademark it, because Sci Fi is a genre.

They say television is a business of C students, and if so, then maybe marketing is too, because it rewards spelling things incorrectly. (They're See students?)

But Syfy is not alone...

Discovery Communications execs get prickly rashes whenever anyone refers to TLC as The Learning Channel, though once it was quite proud of that designation. No more. It's TLC, and it stands for nothing, and that allows TLC to be as stupid as it wants to be.

NBC Universal, which owns Sci Fi, also owns Oxygen and Bravo, which both used to be something they now aren't. And that's apparently a good thing.

bulging-brides.jpgI was thinking about this. Scripps Networks owns something it once called the Fine Living Network, an "aspirational" channel that once put on programs about fine wine, yachts, fabulous architecture and other stuff that made you start talking like Robin Leach. Now Fine Living mainly has a schedule of reality shows, including one series called Bulging Brides. Definitely not aspirational.

I have a little sympathy for Scripps. Fine Living Network doesn't fit with these hard times -- rich people are now trying to live like the hoi polloi -- so Fine Living had to swerve out of that line of work. Plus, the network heretofore flew under Madison Avenue's radar, but as of January, it's in 50 million homes and is now getting rated by Nielsen, so it needs to score some points.

It is however, unfortunate that FLN is also the way the National Liberation Front of both Algeria and Burundi refer to themselves.

Think about some other cable networks. If ESPN wasn't so successful, you'd think they'd like to change their name, which once stood for Entertainment and Sports Network. (Why not the Cover Your Ass Network, or CYAN?)

Nickelodeon is named for a device none of its viewers, nor most of its viewers' parents, have ever heard of. VH1 seems to have been a thoughtless name for MTV's second channel, as if somebody wrote it on a napkin and a logo artist took it seriously.

Lifetime sounds sufficiently vague to be anything, which again, is a good thing. But it started out as a cable network that delved into health and medical topics; it doesn't make sense as a name for a women's network. Meanwhile, WE: Women's Entertainment sounds alternatively like a new medical condition or a dowdy campus service organization.

Before it became Spike (a name everybody thought was pretty stupid when it was announced, an opinion that hasn't budged), it was TNN. That once stood for The Nashville Network, but when Viacom bought it, it, too, stood for nothing. But why Spike? I never heard a satisfactory explanation, but Dude! wouldn't have been bad, and it would have probably played well with the fart-joke crowd.


Which gets us to the Big Three. CBS no longer stands for anything, but it once was the Columbia Broadcasting System. And NBC and ABC don't really mean anything, don't really say anything. All three are, on the Vague Name Indicator, nebulous enough that they can set their own course.

But each of the Big Three have iconic logos -- the CBS eye, the NBC peacock and the stylistic ABC dot -- and here's where the old broadcasters are out of sync with consumers. Those icons represent a culture, a history, a sense that these networks are institutions, which they are, and thank God.


But that doesn't matter much to the evolved viewing public that prefers brand marketing (something new!) rather than brand integrity (something with roots). That's not the reason broadcast networks are losing audience, but maybe it says something about how they differ from vast millions of viewers. They're traditional in an era where that is a mortal television sin.

Syfy it is.





P.J. Bednarski is officially "former," but definitely here and thinking and dreaming and dreadfully unaware of his real age. For the record, I'm former executive editor of Broadcasting & Cable, former editor of Elecronic Media, TV critic at USA Today at its inception, (when many believed it would be quickly gone), the Chicago Sun-Times (which I fear is nearly former, dammit), Cincinnati Post (no longer in existence) and Dayton Journal Herald (ditto). You can reach me at pjbnyc@optonline.net or paul.j.bednarski@gmail.com. 





I personally hated what The Learning Channel became after it morphed into TLC (which now clearly stands for Trucks, Longliners & Choppers). Same for the Discovery Channel (even tkough it has yet to morph into just DC). I used to go to these channel to find worthwhile alternatives to PBS's high quality educational and mostly science based material (like NOVA). But alas even the Science Channel rarely seems to please any more either, as it morphed inot so mucb less decent science programming and more showing off big machines and manufacturing but in the mot shallow of ways. It is sad that such a potentially valuable source of learning by osmosis is so destroyed. I know some of these show inspire some to go onto real learning and doing, but for most it is just more TV wasteland eye candy, and to me that is a waste of time. At least the cooking channels still show actual cooking and recipes, but I guess at some point that will all morph into reality shows too and vapid explorations of the most superficial and little more.

Comment posted on March 19, 2009 9:46 AM

Gregg B said:

Welcome to the family P.J. I'd like to mention A&E which stood for Arts and Entertainment and now has very little of either of those. VH1 stood for Video Hits 1 and I haven't sen a video on it in 15 years. My favorites are TCM, TBS and TNT because if you have the dough and the ego as Ted Turner has, (as they said in "The Producers") flaunt it baby!

Comment posted on March 19, 2009 9:49 AM

Christofer Meissner said:

I agree that renaming (or respelling, as you say--priceless!) Sci Fi as Syfy is indicative of a larger trend in cable networks abandoning what were their original identities in favor of something more amorphous (using, as you call them, "Vague Name Indicators"). It seems to me to be a destructive trend, as cable networks are all becoming more or less indistinguishable from one another. Which is preferable, for both viewers and for cable network owners: a programming landscape in which distinctive--but smaller--niches are well-defined and viewers know what to expect when they tune in to, say, Lifetime, or A&E, or Sci Fi (the way it used to be); or one in which no network is distinguishable from any other, because all have watered down their network identities (brand marketing rather than brand integrity, to use your terms), which is what we are moving towards (if we haven't already gotten there). I think that those networks that have maintained brand integrity will be proven to have done so wisely (if there are any left), as it will eventually make them even more distinctive.

Comment posted on March 19, 2009 1:43 PM

Kate Green said:

Welcome P.J. Court TV has become TRU TV and really only programs "actuality" shows that are completely unwatchable. They started (or perfected) the trial genre and made the OJ trial "must watch" (sorry, NBC), but their latest incarnation at night is awful. I will still watch their trial coverage (In Session) during the day if I am around, but they can keep the rest.

Comment posted on March 19, 2009 1:48 PM

Ron Alridge said:

I'm glad to see my long-time friend and former co-worker writing for this site. He has always been one of the best who ever covered
and analyzed the TV biz. And, of course, his impish piece on TV naming is vintage PJ.
By way of reaction, let me say that I for one always thought "Spike" was some kind of reference to those nasty, spike-collared bulldogs that used to show up in comic books and maybe on old episodes of the Little Rascals. Come to think of it, wasn't a Little Rascals bully named Spike? And didn't he have a bulldog? Or was it the bulldog that was named Spike? God how quickly the brain cells die.
Anyway, it always seemed to me that the "Spike" name on the cable network was supposed to let us guys know that the programs to be offered would be manly, testosterone-rich, throbbing, rock hard, heavy breathing, babe-conquering entertainment filled with bar fights, shootings, restaurant fights, car chases, school yard fights, motorcycle chases, mall fights, boat chases, stabbings, chain sawings and other stuff designed to promote the superiority of the penis over the brain. But I could be wrong. Or even cynical.
By the way, PJ didn't mention the most misleading and/or meaningless of all TV names these days--Fox NEWS. I recommend renaming it Foxaganda, which sounds a lot more hip and would be a good deal more honest. But that's just me.
Welcome aboard, PJ. (On PJ's behalf, let me say it's great to hear from you, too, Ron. And listen -- if you ever want to ease out of your fat-cat early retirement and write about TV -- anything at all, however infrequently -- just say the word. You'd be a perfect guest voice. And hey, Gerald Jordan is about to join up, too, so you'll be in increasingly familiar company. Wanna play? -- David B.)

Comment posted on March 20, 2009 10:35 AM

Tom said:

Kinda of a dream, more than two decades delayed: Three of the people I loved to read most when it came to television, all on the same site: Bianculli, PJ and Ron Alridge. Their writing always made me a little jealous, but more importantly made the newspaper coverage of television in the '70s and '80s better than it has been since.
And the news that another personal favorite, Gerald Jordan, will be here soon makes this good site better than ever.
Safe from the clueless atmosphere of print publishing, Mr. Bianculli, you are doing a good job at reviving an endangered art.
Many thanks. (Hey, Tom -- what a great thing to say. And Alridge hasn't said yes yet, but I hope he will lend us his opinions and expertise, from time to time. And now that I think of, I hope YOU will, too. We night get to the point where we have more writers than readers... but hey, I'll take all the talented veteran writers I can get, and you're sure one of those! Have your people call my people. -- David B.

Comment posted on March 20, 2009 1:01 PM

JEBell said:

If I remember my Anthropology 101, when a new alpha male takes over the band, he kills all the offspring of his rivals. This guy Howe sounds like he sprang full born from the head of some Marketing consortium. He's created frakkin' Wonderbread (sorry, Wonderbread). I wonder how many other branding changes came as the new network head bowed at the alter of "But It's Really So Much More"?

Comment posted on March 28, 2009 4:00 PM
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