The Sad Decline of the A&E Network

I want to tell you a story, but you must keep in mind that isn’t a fairy tale, a legend or even a myth. It’s a true story. A horror story, yes, but a true one. Once upon a time there was a cable channel that wanted to make a mark for itself as being a classy network and so its creators decided to add the word Arts to its name. It was called Arts and Entertainment, before finally shortening it to just A&E.

Yes, at one time A&E was a beacon of cultural literacy awash in the muck of cultural illiteracy that ruled the airwaves. It depended greatly upon British television series for much of its programming, airing PBS Mystery castoffs such as the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series. In addition, it regularly aired documentaries on historical subjects. Oh sure, it set itself up to be looked upon as elitist by NASCAR-watching, country-music listening, Jerry Falwell-admiring, Ann Coulter-is-hot-thinking types who considered it a network trying far too hard to prove that the medium wasn’t more suited to showing naked female midgets engaged in hair-pulling catfights over their obese transgender boyfriends ala a typical Jerry Springer episode.

No, A&E ached to provide a small but loyal segment of the television audience with an alternative. It made a name for itself with its award-winning Biography series. A&E network still does air Biography, but whereas today you will be more likely to see episodes treating you to everything you never cared to know about Paris Hilton or the latest American Idol loser, once upon a time A&E Biography dared to inform viewers about such figures as Diego Rivera and Peter the Great.

A&E used to be a showcase for classic TV mystery dramas from Ellery Queen to Columbo. In its earliest years, A&E was even know to show Ingmar Bergman movies. I mean, come on, you can’t get any more artsy-fartsy than that! I know this must sound like a fairly tale or one of those urban legends, but once upon a time you could see Ingmar Bergman movies on A&E. Today, of course, A&E restricts itself to showing just one movie. The Silence of the Lambs. At last count, The Silence of the Lambs had aired on A&E 1,397 times. And that was just in July!

A&E used to be a terrific channel to turn to when nothing interesting was on, which admittedly occurred far less often ten years ago than today. When nothing else captured your interest, you could turn on A&E and maybe watch a show about the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs, or great castles of the world. Who knew what new information would stick inside your brain an hour later.

Sadly, now A&E is simply another channel to bypass on your realization that despite having over 100 channels to choose from, there is somehow even less worth watching on television than when you just had three or ten or twenty channels. How is that possible? Instead of Jeremy Brett’s brilliant portrayal of Sherlock Holmes or Jim Hutton’s brilliant portrayal of Ellery Queen, A&E offers up a reality show about the life of the daughter and grandsons of a murderous Mafia don. Instead of fascinating shows on ancient mysteries, A&E considers quality programming to include the camera-trick heavy illusions of a yet another drama queen in the hopefully short tradition of David Blaine.

One would have thought that a reality show glorifying the wealth of a murderer’s daughter was as low as A&E could get. Before making that statement final, however, we should probably await judgment on a reality show featuring has-been musician Gene Simmons, and-ugh!-a reality show about girls in the roller derby. Is this even a sport anymore? Does anybody really understand how points are scored in roller derby? Does anybody really care? Duh, what I am asking? Nobody ever cared.

Yes, once upon a time A&E could be held up as an example of what could be done right with cable programming. But that was a long, long time ago. Today, A&E is barely distinguishable from E! Who would ever have thought such a thing was possible?

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