As recently as six or seven years ago, I couldn't have imagined a cable package without TV Land. I wasn't obsessive about the channel or anything, but when channel surfing, TV Land was always a reliable place to land, especially on the weekends, when the programmers would dig into the vaults for a "TV Land Box Set," and string together a little television history: be it a failed sitcom that starred Matthew Perry, or an especially forward-thinking episode of Our Miss Brooks. Now I almost never stop by TV Land. For one thing, the line-up isn't as exciting as it used to be in the old days, when wonders like The Phil Silvers Show or The Joey Bishop Show popped up in the afternoons. And who needs TV Land to watch those old sitcoms anyway, since they're both available (at least in part) on DVD, along with Taxi, Cheers, The Andy Griffith Show and dozens of others that TV Land used to organize and cablecast for me.

The unlamented loss of TV Land from my life got me thinking about other cable networks I used to watch regularly, but now hardly ever turn on. Those include:


To be honest, if there's a game on ESPN that I want to see, I'll watch it–especially if it's in HD. But as soon as the game is over, the channel changes, before those yammerheads at Sportscenter pipe up. A decade ago, I camped out at ESPN, watching multiple Sportscenters, and every possible broadcast of Baseball Tonight, The Sports Reporters and so on. But over the past couple of years, everything good about ESPN–the jovial tone of the anchors, the intelligent analysis–converted into smirks and shouting. Maybe it was like this all along, and I wasn't bored by it when I was in my 20s. But at the moment, the smug, think-way-inside-the-box commentary and look-how-cute-we-are catch-phrasery strikes me as representative of everything wrong with social discourse in this country.


Outside of the occasional Anthony Mann western, not much about American Movie Classics upholds the latter part of its name anymore, and in between the commercials and the pan-and-scan presentation, watching even a real "classic" on AMC has become a chore. Can't say much for their original programming either, though I've heard good things about Mad Men, which I'll give a try. Still, compared to TCM, which keeps seeking out and licensing classic films–foreign fare included–and which arranges its schedule intelligently, AMC is kind of a joke.


I can barely remember what used to be on A&E; when it was in my "favorite channel" remote control rotation, though I seem to recall gorging on reruns of Columbo and Banacek way back when. Oh, and there was Biography of course, which lulled me to sleep for several years. Nothing like drifting off to fun facts about Jamie Farr.


The Food Network has become my "watch 'til I nod off" fare now, especially when they're showing Unwrapped, and I can let the stresses of the day melt into images of snack cakes being made on an assembly line. But that's strictly with the sound off. My gourmet days more or less ended when I had kids, and I had to shelve my Alton Brown culinary chemistry books and start figuring out new ways to sneak vegetables and meat into macaroni and cheese. And anyway, aside from the tourism/manufacturing shows, there's not much of note on The Food Network now. Smart chefs used to stand in front of the Food Network cameras and explain how to use unusual ingredients and arcane techniques. Now "hosts" explain how to open a couple of cans and get dinner ready in 20 minutes (minus commercials). And don't get me started on Paula Deen and her weird, screechy party show. I liked her when she was telling me how to make a cracker salad for the Georgia/Florida game. I don't like her whooping across my screen like some kind of inhuman Arsenio/Emeril hybrid.


This should go without saying, yes? Forget about the whole "they don't show music videos anymore" complaint; the problem now is that neither channel shows much that's even music-related. As what remains of radio has grown more niche-oriented, two of the rare media outposts that tried to thread together the diverse strands of popular culture have more or less thrown down the needle, apparently acknowledging that there's no way to get rich off something as divisive as music. But which came first? The decline of the music industry, or the end of MTV and VH1 as star-making entities? Can record labels and music video channels ever have another mutually beneficial golden age, or is the whole concept of the platinum-level pop star about to be something else for the "remember when" file?

This one is kind of out of my hands, because my cable system dropped the Game Show Network about five years ago, and if I had it now, I might watch the occasional episode of one of the original games, like Lingo or Chain Reaction, or maybe one of the documentary specials. (And if I hadn't completely burned out on televised poker, I might watch High Stakes Poker.) But for me, the heyday of GSN was when I first moved to a place that carried the channel, in late 1999, and I'd spend hours on end watching old episodes of Match Game, Family Feud, Pyramid, Password, Card Sharks, and my favorite, To Tell The Truth. (Hey, I didn't really have a job back then, and the afternoons were long.) Watching something like Match Game for the first time in well over a decade was akin to eating a food I hadn't tasted since childhood, or catching a smell in the air that reminded me of the first day of school. It was a powerful nostalgia drug, and it eventually led to harder stuff: like the much-missed "Black & White Sunday Night," where GSN would show nothing but kinescopes of old panel shows, or that other strange, long-forgotten Sunday night showcase when they'd dig up something they only had one or two episodes of, like the David Letterman-hosted pilot for The Riddlers. This was a different kind of nostalgia, for times and television that I'd never experienced, but that I could almost imagine I had. As GSN has increased its original programming, the time-machine quality of the network has declined. But then, at a certain point, it's probably time to start looking ahead, not back.