My TV pet peeve


One of my biggest pet peeves about television terminology is the difference between a network and a channel. Here’s what I write in my in-process television textbook:

The difference between cable and satellite channels and networks can be slippery, as the terms are used inconsistently throughout the industry. Although many cable channels call themselves “networks” (like Cartoon Network or Food Network), they do not have affiliates and thus are not truly “networked”—instead they are single national channels that air identically across the country. Likewise, for the everyday viewer, a channel on your cable box is the same whether it’s a national cable channel like CNN or a network like Fox, but there is a crucial distinction for the industry—the Fox you watch is actually a local station affiliated with the network, not a national channel. Thus while the terms network, channel, and station are often used interchangeably within the industry and everyday use, each has its own specific structure and role within the television system, and thus it is worth being careful to distinguish what is meant by each term.

Knowing that I care about such minutiae, Amanda Lotz sent me this article announcing that TV Guide Channel is “rebranding” as TV Guide Network. According to the TV Guide representative, “‘network’ conveyed programming” more than channel. To me, it conveys that the company whose job has traditionally been to catalog the offerings of networks, channels, and stations doesn’t know the difference between the terms!

Anyway, anybody else have any pet peeves about TV that raise your hackles like this?


7 Responses to “My TV pet peeve”

  1. I’ve grumbled about this on my own blog, with some helpful feedback.

    One thing that also bothers me is the citation style for TV shows. I guess some styles want series titles italicized, while others prefer quotation marks. For me it makes more sense to use quotation marks, but then do I italicize the names of episodes. Right now I’m writing about race in the book Friday Night Lights and the NBC series “Friday Night Lights,” so using quotations seems to make sense for the sake of clarity. I have the same issue with comic book series: I want to call the whole series “Black Hole,” but refer specifically to Black Hole #7. Citation stuff doesn’t seem to deal with serials very well in general.

  2. 2 jmittell

    Glad to see you share my network/channel concerns – embrace “cable channel,” it will do no harm…

    I use & teach italicized series titles, quotations around episode titles – similar to album titles in italics, song titles in quotes. I think most presses in the US follow that model. Thanks for reading!

  3. I sympathize with your usage peevishness but I counsel acceptance. Language is a living thing, and if “network” comes to mean something less specific than it used to, that’s really too bad for sticklers. Then we will have to accept retronyms like “broadcast network” to disambiguate against “cable network.” Until networks stop broadcasting altogether, that is.

    Now for my peeve. The worst, worst, worst thing the networks and affiliates ever do is invade my screen with their awful promo snipes and, even worse, hysterical warnings of bad weather two counties over. The DVR makes these especially obnoxious–warnings of storms long past.

  4. As I always say, if it’s big, use italics, if it’s little, use quotation marks. Not my problem if newspapers (in particular) like to use quotation marks for just about everything.

    Worse than the weather warnings are the weather warning maps that take up even more screen real estate. It’s tornado season here in North Texas, which means late-season episodes of my favorite shows will almost inevitably have to be seen through multi-colored blobs of Texas counties.

  5. Your interesting post reminded me that up here in Canada, the concept of the “network” also has important regulatory implications. Broadcasters that qualify as networks are expected to support the production of Canadian television through contributions to programming funds and commitments to abide by content quotas. If I remember correctly, Canada’s third-largest broadcaster, Global (or Canwest Global) called itself “a system” precisely to get around the investment requirements. It got around this by not having centralized programming — each affiliate was licensed as an independent entity. Global would purchase national rights to US programs and then “syndicate” them to its affiliate stations, who could air them whenever they wished. This meant that these stations also didn’t have a nightly national network newscast. It drove the competition and the production community bananas. That changed only recently.

    So in addition to the definitional issues, concepts such as “network” or “channel” also have a variety of industrial connotations in different national contexts.

    As for TV pet peeves, I’ll go with the fact that Canadians can’t watch the ads during the Super Bowl. That’s because rules on “simultaneous substitution” allow Canadian broadcasters to simulcast US broadcasts — and sell ads to Canadian audiences. I realize this one comes before the age of the Internet, but its something most Canadians can’t stand.

  6. 6 Jonathan Gray

    And correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Fox officially not a full-blown “network” for its first years (back when FinSyn applied to “networks” that broadcasted more than did Fox … yet another way for Rupert to skirt the rules)?

    It’s a dirty trick, I agree, though, since it’s like “the news” — the term means both the events and the reporting, and hence people come to think of them as one and the same. All this network-channel lambada that’s going on seems to do the same — many viewers just see Fox as network, channel, producer, small animal, and family of channels/networks, and thus at a very basic level, I think most people who try to make sense of any kind of ownership regulation, for instance, just get dead confused and give up (“what do you mean that station’s not Fox? It says it is. And that one is Fox network, part of the Fox channel family? Whuh? Oh I give up, just do what you want to Rupert”). Lead the revolution Jason and I’ll grab my pitchfork and follow…

  7. I’m in full agreement with your point about how network has lost its core meaning. I’d add that series seems to have gone this way as well. Series seems to be used synonymously with program when I’d argue that the two words do not mean the same thing.

    For example, a soap opera is a serial not a series. Of course, in your essay on narrative complexity you rightly and eloquently point out that the distinction between series and serial has been blurred. I tend to see the series/serial distinction on a continuum and certain structural characteristics pull the label to one end or the other.

    In short, not every TV narrative is a series as we so frequently label them.

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