From Soviets to Sharks: How Seven TV Channels Changed Their Identities

Much like the claim that “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” aren’t as good as they used to be, complaining about MTV’s transition from round-the-clock music videos to “Jersey Shore” has gone from legitimate gripe to tired cliché. Yes, it kind of sucks, but networks have to evolve, and sometimes — often, actually — that can be a good thing (it can also be terrible, but usually, good!) Below are seven examples of major American channels that began as one idea before eventually changing into something completely different.

Don’t worry, it involves communists and boobs.

Discovery Channel, without Sharks—Discovery Channel, with Sharks

Now, I’m not saying the Discovery Channel is led by communists. What I am saying, however, is that it once was. Proof: when Discovery launched in 1985, they filled a good chunk of their schedule with Soviet programming, “most of it untranslated but with explanatory textual crawls,” according to Time. “Only the nightly news show ‘Vremya’ will be delayed, subtitled and shown during the U.S. evening hours.” Three years later, they began to show some honest, wholesome, God-fearing entertainment: “World Monitor,” produced by the Christian Science Monitor. Oh, and Shark Week.


Before “iCarly,” before “CatDog,” before even “Salute Your Shorts,” Nick was, well, it wasn’t Nick. The network began as Pinwheel in 1979 (the name “Nickelodeon” would come in 1981) and quickly filled its lineup with “Pop Clips,” which showed music videos even before MTV did; sketch show “You Can’t Do That on Television” (the first use of green slime on Nick); and “Livewire,” a kids talk show that also featured performances from bands before they hit it big, like Murmur-era R.E.M. in 1983. In those early years, Nick did a little bit of everything, and wouldn’t settle into a specific vision until 1985—”Double Dare” would follow a year later.

Madison Square Garden Network—USA Network

USA Network has gone through an impressive transformation since its inception in the early 1970s. Really, the only consistency has been that it all sucks. USA, which recently became a major player in the basic cable game, due to paint-by-number procedurals like “Psych” and “Burn Notice,” had been known for years as “The Place to Watch Reruns of Becker,” but in September 1971, when the channel launched, it was called the Madison Square Garden Network, showing mostly collegiate sports. In 1979, it became U-S-A!, airing old game shows, season four of “Airwolf,” and wrestling matches. This lack of non-original programming and “Up All Night with Rhonda Shear” would continue until 2002, when U-S-A!, where characters are supposedly welcome, first aired “Monk” — a step down, IMHO, from the channel’s previous hit, “Dance Party USA.”

The Nashville Network—Spike

Spike now bills itself as the channel for MEN, filling out their schedule with “MANswers” and giving an opportunity to “Stripperella” when no one else would. It wasn’t always that way. Let’s retrace: Spike began as the Gaylord Entertainment Company-owned Nashville Network in 1983, launching less than a week after Country Music Television. Amazingly, it took 17 years before someone wondered, “Does cable really need two networks that air country music videos?” It does not, and in 2000, The Nashville Network became The National Network, changing its programming from Garth Brooks to Arena Football League games and reruns of “The Wonder Years.” To shed its hick past, The National Network billed itself as The New TNN (stupid, because, literally, that means The New The National Network) and began to show more masculine material, like wrestling matches, “Robot Wars,” and Pamela Anderson’s tits. Finally, in 2003, it became the Spike we know and tolerate today.

Outdoor Life Network—Versus

Speaking of hicks: when Outdoor Life Network launched in 1995, it focused almost primarily on fishing and hunting (who could forget the fourth season episode of “Hunting the Hank,” where the dog and human duo look for the rare Mearn’s Quail? Real. Tears.). In 2005, a year after dedicating an entire month to nothing but Tour de France coverage, OLN began showing more extreme sports, including National Hockey League games, and in 2006, the network’s name was changed to Versus. They may not have instructional shows on the best places in Canada to go fly-fishing, but they were home to the 2011 National Lacrosse League 2011 All-Star Game (I would have just died if East Division hadn’t won).

VH1, with Kenny G—VH1, with “Celebreality”

VH1 has always been a little lame, but for different reasons. Now, it’s lame because its reality shows are terrible; in the early 2000s, it was lame because it prominently featured Hal Sparks; in the 1990s, it was because its “Top 20 Video Countdown” videos of the year included Alanis Morissette and Melissa Etheridge; and in the mid-1980s, when VH1 launched, it was lame because the channel intentionally aired Kenny G videos. That was the original mission of the network, actually: to showcase bland, non-MTV musical acts like Carly Simon, and to give Rosie O’Donnell a platform to “talk” about Stevie Nicks.


FX began as fX in 1994, broadcasting live out of an apartment in Manhattan. The network’s original slogans were “The World’s First Living Network” and “TV Made Fresh Daily,” which translated to a network full of live shows like “Breakfast Time,” a daytime talk show starring Bob the Puppet; “The Pet Department,” where people call in with pet problems; hard news program “Under Scrutiny with Jane Wallace”; and the sequel to Backdraft, “Backchat,” hosted by a young Jeff Probst. With so many cult shows and not enough mainstream hits, fX rebranded itself in 1997 as FX: “Fox Gone Cable,” a.k.a. shows for dudes. After a brief NASCAR-intense period, FX began making edgy original series like “Nip/Tuck” and “The Shield,” shows that created a blueprint for quality programming like “Sons of Anarchy” and “Louie.”