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COLUMN

TNN: Now For Men

Philip Burrowes

TNN used to be a joke. Back when it was The Nashville Network, it was, well, country and as much as there is a demand for that type of programming, that audience is [random Jeff Foxworthy joke]. Moreover, after Viacom purchased the company, it became a direct competitor with that conglomerate’s Country Music Television, so something had to be done. Since then it’s been three years of attempted redefinition. Finally, with the June premiere of the Spike lineup, TNN has ceased to be a joke; it is now an offensive lie.

Spike is the proposed name of this new-new-TNN. With “the first network for men” as its motto, Spike positions itself as both a revolution and, implicitly, a natural progression from previous stations as Lifetime, Nickelodeon, and BET. After all, if females, children, and Blacks can get their stations, why not males? It’s only fair, and, more importantly, potentially lucrative. However, to quote James Schamus, that’s “dangerous and stupid.”

First the stupid: Spike is not the first network designed for men. Bypassing an argument over whether television has patriarchal origins, specific channels have emerged in recent history which were effectively masculinity-oriented. ESPN now features female athletic competitions without shame, but even now many of its thematic descendants, from corporate partner Classic Sports to niche stations like The Outdoor Channel have practically no females on any of their programs. Comedy Central would be considered a man’s network if not for the fact that its shows, while male-dominated on-screen -- of all its regular shows arguably only one possesses a female star (ironically Sports Night) -- possess significant crossover appeal in their audience. The Sci-Fi Channel has more prominent, albeit lonely, female characters (see: Dana Scully) but probably fewer women wanting to watch them. In its Son of the Beach days, FX! was almost everything Spike claims to be.

Okay, so the motto is false advertising. That can’t stop Apple or Nike, so why should it stop something as tongue-in-cheek as Spike? Besides, how many males will be persuaded to stop watching shows such as 100 Most Irresistible Women merely because television exaggerates? Apparently, when Spike says “man” they don’t mean “adult.”

Nowhere can this be better seen than in the crown of Spike’s new schedule: its Thursday animation block. Crown jewel on that day is a resurrected Ren and Stimpy, promoted not for its genre-satire or subtle homoeroticism, but merely for being gross. Sure, in its heyday Ren and Stimpy proved popular enough to merit airing on MTV for a while but you can say the same thing about Speed Racer. While the rest of Spike’s lineup isn’t nearly so, well, juvenile, it’s at best adolescent. Basically, Spike’s claim to fame is that it airs all of Pamela Anderson’s post-Home Improvement work, which isn’t so much a “man”-thing as it a pubescent-’ro-male-mastubatory-fantasy thing. You could argue that the male maturation process stops at that stage, but in all seriousness this construction of manliness around scatology and silicone serves more to underestimate men than support them.

Pigeon-holing is a potential danger with any network that concentrates on one demographic. Nickelodeon encourages the pugnacious as much as it does the precocious. Lifetime’s original movies are notorious for spending more time depicting females as victims than as strong individuals. As for BET, well, that’s an article in and of itself. If any of the aforementioned networks were totally irresponsible and pandering, they would be rightfully lambasted as exploitative. That is the reason Nick promotes community activism through the Big Help, why BET Tonight attempts to highlight news issues only superficially addressed by mainstream outlets, and it provides excuse for Lifetime’s Intimate Portrait to lend an entirely different take on Hollywood sensationalism.

However, Spike has no such responsibility to (heterosexual) men, a group almost defined by its position in power. Therein lies the danger: it is as loose a cannon as a basic cable channel can be. It is designed to appeal the to the basest desires of mankind, and nothing else. Granted, as a network with advertising it is still a slave to ratings, and any individual one of its programs could probably find airtime elsewhere (if it hasn’t already). Let’s just hope that, given Spike’s programming executives’ definition of what men want, the network remembers its beginnings as a joke, and not become too serious a problem.