Alpha Repertory Television Service - History


By the early 1980s, cable television had reached millions of viewers in the United States and was starting to draw significant audiences away from the "Big 3" broadcast television networks. All three networks saw opportunities to expand into cable television to protect and grow their audiences, and they all experimented with niche programming. In fact, all three traditional networks introduced arts-related channels within one year of each other.

Hearst/ABC's ARTS started broadcasting in 1981, airing highbrow cultural fare such as opera, ballet, classical symphonic performances, dramatic theater productions, and select foreign films. CBS Cable, which also began in 1981, was its most direct competitor, with similar "art house" programming and critical acclaim. (Bravo, NBC's The Entertainment Channel, and the Public Broadcasting Service were competitors as well). Many cable operators had limited channel bandwidth, so CBS Cable struggled to find space and an audience, eventually folding in late 1982. However, while ARTS fared no better in finding viewers, it shared channel space with Nickelodeon children's television, signing on at 9 p.m. Eastern Time for the evening hours. That shared channel arrangement was a perfect symbiotic scheduling match for the two networks given their respective audience demographics (ARTS's viewers either had no young children or had sent them to bed by the time the station signed on). ARTS had somewhat lower programming costs than CBS Cable, with less (and less costly) original programming. Prime time was normally the most valuable air time, but not for Nickelodeon — ARTS paid a very low rate to Nickelodeon for its three evening satellite transponder hours, plus a repeat at 9 p.m. Pacific Time (according to Hearst executive Raymond Joslin, ARTS paid Nickelodeon nothing for the first year, $1 million for the second, and $2 million for the third). Most cable operators that carried Nickelodeon also carried ARTS simply because the single channel feed was convenient. These factors combined to keep the channel on the air more than twice as long as CBS Cable.

Nonetheless, despite having a small but affluent audience ostensibly attractive to advertisers, Hearst/ABC could not turn a profit on ARTS (ARTS carried limited advertising per hour, typically low-key ads for luxury products and services. Often advertising slots went unfilled). The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) had a similar problem finding a sufficiently large audience for its "The Entertainment Channel," which premiered in 1982 and aired such expensive programming as BBC cultural imports and live broadcasts from Lincoln Center. The companies merged their respective channels in 1984 to form the Arts & Entertainment channel (A&E), with ABC exiting the partnership soon after. A&E took over the former ARTS timeslot before moving to its own dedicated channel in 1985, whereupon Nickelodeon expanded its programming schedule to fill the former ARTS/A&E hours with more teen-oriented programming and on July 1 of that year, it also added "Nick at Nite", a nighttime program block carrying reruns of older discontinued television series that continues to air on the channel this day.

A&E survives to this day as one of the most popular cable television channels, but its programming evolved to bear little or no resemblance to its progenitors'.

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