5 Sad Ways A&E Became the Walmart of Television Networks
When it comes to things that used to be great but slowly became terrible, cable television network A&E doesn't even make the list. That's because there was nothing slow about their transformation from useful to useless. It practically happened overnight.
I think this stands for "Alcoholism and Eating Disorders" now.
For the longest time, they were the network that aired two episodes of Biography every day while also delivering original, scripted programming that skewed toward a more history-minded demographic, like the audience you might expect a show like Downton Abbey to attract today, for example.
So people who fantasize about working as servants, then?
You sure as shit don't think of highfalutin Brits when someone mentions the "Arts & Entertainment" network these days, right? A management change in 2002 saw the network undergo a dramatic makeover. The "smart" stuff like Biography and anything history related that didn't involve gambling addicts pawning their possessions got transplanted to the Biography Channel and History Channel, respectively (and appropriately, I suppose). Meanwhile, A&E began focusing almost exclusively on lowbrow fare like Dog the Bounty Hunter and Gene Simmons Family Jewels.
Fuck you, art!
That's the abbreviated story of how the cable network America used to rely on for its "intellectual" programming became the same one that currently finds itself at the heart of the Duck Dynasty controversy. Oh, hey! The debacle surrounding that show in particular is something I discuss at length with my Cracked co-workers Randall Maynard and Kristi Harrison, along with special guest comic Josh Denny, on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast, which you can listen to right here if you're so inclined ...
For the purposes of this article, let's focus on the network that absurd show calls home. There was a time when flipping the channel to A&E was like the television version of visiting a museum. Now, sadly, it's a lot more like visiting Walmart. Here are five reasons why ...
They Flood the Market With Cheaply Made Products
Is there a bigger knock against Walmart than this one? Even if you manage to make peace with their long list of other failings, it's hard to justify spending your hard-earned cash on cheaply constructed bullshit, which is exactly what their critics accuse Walmart of peddling.
I'm not here to shit-talk Walmart, so let's look at how this same criticism applies to the people who bring you Duck Dynasty. It all starts with that aforementioned (provided you read the intro) management change in 2002. That was the year A&E sold its soul to reality television, culminating in their current lineup, most of which consists of cheap-to-produce "scripted reality" fare like Duck Dynasty and less beloved franchises like Billy the Exterminator. As a recent industry report pointed out, a show like that usually boasts a per episode budget in the $250,000 to $450,000 range.
It only looks like it has a huge budget.
Meanwhile, the same budget for a show on the lowly USA Network is more in the $2,000,000 to $2,500,000 range.
No matter where you stand on their entertainment value, those numbers don't lie. Cheap is cheap, and there's no better word to use when describing how a show like Storage Wars is made.
Are they dangerous, though? That's another common gripe against cheaply made products. When retailers start relying on shady Chinese factories and the like for their goods, you never know when that crate of easy-to-swallow kids' toys will arrive slathered in a fresh coat of delicious, lead-based paint.
Give them to a child you dislike today!
While the chances of falling victim to physical harm as a result of watching shows like Duck Dynasty are slim to none, that doesn't mean they're completely safe. That show in particular has been called out as bordering on social and political propaganda at times, which probably explains why supporters of the show seem to have absolutely no qualms with Phil Robertson's statements. It's like expecting Fox News viewers to be angry about someone saying mean things about Obama.
Of course, from a financial standpoint, making 10 shows for the price of one is a no-brainer, but just as it is with buying three "Great Value" brand frozen pizzas for the price of one DiGiorno at Walmart, the saying "you get what you pay for" was coined precisely for this type of situation.
It's not delivery ... obviously.
Even if you take the obvious questions about the entertainment value of the reality shows A&E has hitched their wagon to out of the discussion, there's another cost associated with watching A&E that puts it even more in line with the world's most despised retailer.
Their Business Model Is Built on Exploiting Workers
"Think about the workers, man." That's the kind of misty-eyed plea you get from Walmart opponents when all other arguments against you saving $15 on a Blu-ray player fail to make an impression. You're unlikely to hear that same talking point in a discussion about the merits of Ice Road Truckers, but it's just as appropriate.
See, the report mentioned in the previous entry was authored by the Writers Guild of America and was meant to call out the awful working conditions that the crews of "scripted reality" shows often endure. It includes horror stories about people working 100 consecutive hours with no breaks or 20 consecutive 16-hour workdays without a single day off. All of this while being paid as if they'd simply worked a normal, 40-hour work week.
It's not just the people who have to watch this bullshit who get hurt.
Forced, unpaid overtime is exactly the kind of thing that has earned Walmart its current reputation as a soulless corporate entity that values profit over employee well-being, and it apparently runs rampant in the world of reality television. For another check mark in the similarities box, consider that reality show producers are able to demand this kind of work by employing "independent contractors" who don't fall under the jurisdiction of the labor unions that traditionally have protected those employed in the television industry from being exploited. It's that lack of union labor on most reality shows, at least in part, that keeps the budgets so low.
Pictured: A great way to convince a Walmart executive to hire someone to murder you.
Walmart has never been too secretive about its disdain for labor unions and their potential impact on the low prices that made the company famous. If the plight of the hourly employee is a fight that matters to you, watching a Parking Wars marathon is a great way to support the wrong side without ever realizing what you're doing. Just a heads up!
Also, just like we accuse Big Blue of all the time, when it comes to A&E ...
Women Are Unfairly Represented
I suppose if there are any A&E apologists out there, this is the point that can most easily be argued against. After all, the CEO of A&E is, in fact, a woman. The common complaint against Walmart (and the basis for a famous lawsuit) is that, even though women make up over 70 percent of the hourly staff, they're only employed in one-third of the management positions. I don't know the gender breakdown of the rest of A&E's corporate staff, but a female CEO makes that argument a bit harder to make against them as a company.
Still, if reaching is your thing, there is a slightly modified version of that same argument that you can make. You simply need to consider that, according to their own numbers, the A&E audience is 65 percent female, but those reality shows that are currently buttering their bread only feature women in the title role twice, once in the obligatory "girls can do everything boys can" show, Rodeo Girls, and again in the "broads is crazy" romp, Psychic Tia.
In fact, the latter of those two shows speaks to the one slot in their programming schedule where A&E, unfortunately, always made sure women were in the spotlight.
See, at one time, A&E had a television show for just about every mental illness a person could have. From the drug addicts of Intervention to the OCD drama of Obsessed, if someone was being "crazy" somewhere, A&E probably had a camera in their face.
One of the defining shows of A&E's "let's document a downward spiral!" period was Hoarders, and there was good reason for that, of course. The stories profiled on that show were indeed pretty insane, enough so that the long since deceased Ian Fortey once wrote an entire column about the show.
It's probably what killed him.
Now, here's a potentially surprising fact: Did you know that men are more likely to become hoarders than women? If, like a lot of America, your knowledge of hoarding comes from what you learned watching A&E turn it into entertainment, you're definitely forgiven for thinking it would be the other way around. Of the subjects profiled in six seasons of that show, women outnumbered men by an astounding margin of 108 to 44.
I get that the "crazy cat lady" always makes for a good story ...
This is how it starts.
... but if what A&E was selling all those years (the show was cancelled in 2013) was truly a "realistic" look at hoarding, shouldn't there have been a few more "crazy cat dudes" profiled along the way? Maybe I'm the one who's insane, but the fact that there weren't seems a little unfair to me.
They Make Superficial Progress for Business Reasons
In some ways, A&E's decision to suspend Phil Robertson for his remarks about homosexuality could have been seen as progress. I mean, it borders on unbelievable that they wouldn't have known this guy was a loon with all sorts of wacky beliefs since at least as long as they've been doing business together. It's those beliefs, at least in part, that made the show so famous in the first place. The suspension, if you're a "look on the bright side" type, could have been an indication that A&E realized they'd entered into a creative partnership with a religious zealot and finally come to their senses.
The same "senses" that bought this show in the first place.
Of course, the decision to suspend Robertson from the show lasted just about a week, so any hope that this move was a sign that A&E actually cared about the views and beliefs of its stars have evaporated by now, especially when you consider that the reversal came as a result of nothing more than a bunch of rednecks banding together as one to threaten a boycott of the network. In fact, my faith in the good intentions of the people who turned mental illness into theater has waned to the point that, if anything, I suspect they suspended Phil Robertson to draw more attention to the crazy shit he said in that GQ interview.
Because who reads magazines unprovoked these days?
Keep in mind, no one involved in this scandal is stupid. A&E knows how the average Duck Dynasty viewer is going to react upon hearing that their beloved Phil has been suspended for invoking religion to denounce homosexuality. They will (and did) respond with nothing but support, including a concerted effort to snatch up every bit of Duck Dynasty merchandise available.
That's not a minor point, either. One of the factors that drive the massive success of this show is its record-shattering merchandise sales. Total sales were in the neighborhood of $400 million last year.
Currently out of stock online. Sorry, fellas.
Is it so crazy to think that, maybe, A&E knew this suspension would lead to a run on DD merchandise and decided to capitalize on the fortuitous timing of the GQ interview by rattling the base?
Those are the kind of conspiracy theories we attribute to corporate behemoths like Walmart and then laugh off, thinking (more like hoping) no company could be so inherently bad as to see the unfortunate situations of others as a means to make money. Then, we all stop laughing when we remember that Walmart was sued not too long ago for secretly taking out life insurance policies on employees so they could collect on the off chance that employee met an untimely end someday.
"Untimely" meaning "Please, God, just let it happen already."
Is there any way to definitively prove that A&E lent a hand in manufacturing this scandal in the hopes that it would pay off in huge merchandise sales? No, of course not, but can you think of a reason why they wouldn't?
Hell, even the part where they pretended to care about the rights and/or feelings of gay people (when they briefly stuck to their decision to suspend Robertson) solely for financial reasons is a move right out of the Walmart playbook. Their last CEO signed a petition saying gay marriage should be outlawed, but recently Walmart made headlines by finally recognizing same sex couples for health insurance benefits and such. It's a nice gesture that certainly deserves some applause, at least, but it's also nothing more than a financial decision. Anyone who thinks otherwise should remember that a Walmart spokesperson said that notion is "just wrong."
What they're practically screaming with that official statement is that Walmart hasn't changed their stance on gay people; they just want it to look like they have so you'll start spending money there again. When A&E suspended Phil Robertson, their motivations were similar. They didn't want to reprimand anyone for speaking about homosexuality, they just wanted to make sure the people who would be angry if they did had something to spend their money on this Christmas.
And that's why now, along with Walmart and Nickelback ...
A&E Represents a Line That Divides America
"There are two kinds of people in this world ..." is an expression that gets thrown around a lot, but in the case of Walmart, it definitely fits. For some people, the sins and crimes of Walmart will never be great enough to discourage them from shopping there. No matter the quality of the purchases or the reputation making them stands to earn a person, they will shop at Walmart and will think nothing of it.
Hovering somewhere above these people is that class of citizen who turns their nose up at the idea of big box department stores and discount brands and anything of the like. It's all evil and it's all to be avoided.
"Beware of falling prices!"
In summary, there are two kinds of people in this world: people who shop at Walmart, and people who don't. If you think about it, that's a pretty handy distinction to be able to make. I actually put forward a similar argument awhile back in regards to Nickelback. Sure, they're a goddamn awful band, but isn't it nice knowing you can immediately discount anything else a person says once you hear the words "I'm a Nickelback fan" come out of their mouth?
America's #1 reason for wanting to bomb Canada since 2002!
Unfortunately, in what has to be the rock bottom moment of their descent from that once lofty status as the "smart channel" on cable, A&E has come to represent a similar dividing line in American culture. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who watch Duck Dynasty, and those who don't. I know it amounts to little more than stereotyping, but where you line up in that battle probably tells a person everything they need to know about where you stand on life's more important issues.
As 2013 draws to a close, be sure to check out Cracked's year in review because, well, we know you don't remember it half as well as you think.
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