It may sound like a joke, but Fish TV is a living, breathing, swimmingly successful channel. And in that success may be some insight into the kind of programming viewers might choose when they have the opportunity to choose virtually anything.
Fish TV owes its existence to the expanding cable universe. Last April, the Columbia system expanded to 56 channels, up from 36. One of those was going to be devoted to the Sci-Fi Channel, but that service launch was six months away. To fill the vacant spot, marketing manager Hal Schlenger persuaded a local fish store to set up a simple fresh-water tank in the system's studio. He aimed a camera at it, added jazz accompaniment and, voila, every cable household in Columbia had its own video aquarium.
Schlenger didn't know how much subscribers were enjoying Fish TV until it was yanked to make way for SciFi's fall debut. People started calling to say they wanted their Fish TV, Schlenger recalls. And they kept calling, week after week. In December, Fish TV returned by popular demand, filling the 14 hours left open each day by the Bravo channel. The restored Fish TV is bigger and better than ever, with an exotic cast of sea creatures in a salt-water tank aglow with living coral.
Recent research to measure viewer satisfaction with the system's new channels showed one-third of its subscribers liked Fish TV "a lot," a score that matched or beat programming services in which media giants have invested millions of dollars. Evidently, there is a natural bond between two lower vertebrates, fish and couch potatoes.
Schlenger doesn't mind taking credit for Fish TV--look what MTV did for Bob Pittman's career-- but readily admits he didn't invent the concept. New Yorkers well remember the late, lamented Yule Log, a looped tape of a burning hearth fire that used to air every Christmas eve on a local independent station. And today you can rent aquarium videotapes for a soothing watery spectacle.
All Schlenger did, he says modestly, is wed this idea to real time. Fish TV is live, or more to the point, alive. But don't think you can just throw a camera in front of a tank and end up with Fish TV, he warns. You need a camera angle that shows most of the tank, but not all of it, so fish can surprise viewers, suddenly appearing on screen as if emerging from the the deep.
Save for a discreet white-lettered crawl across the bottom of the screen which promotes Crystal Reef, the fish store that supplies and maintains the fish and the tank, there is no advertising on Fish TV. Golden fins are free of signage, and no plastic diver descends with a brand name placard. Not that Schlenger hasn't thought about it. "All the time," he confesses. "C'mon, it would be great, a little Coke sign popping up out of a treasure chest."
But in his next breath, Schlenger admits it would be impossible. Ads would ruin Fish TV, whose appeal is precisely that it's just fish--random, thoughtless and natural. "While watching, you don't have to pay attention to every detail or follow a story line, so you can watch it in a way that's more relaxing," he says. He watches it himself, so he knows, and his sensation is confirmed by research that shows watching fish lowers people's blood pressure. On the shores of Fish TV, the most frantic channel surfer can come to rest.
Television is supposed to be relaxing, although most studies indicate TV induces not relaxation, but a state of passive yearning. And it gets less relaxing all the time. A recent New York Times article described viewing in the age of multiple channels and remote controls as "a relentless, merciless hunt for fulfillment." Experts declared that all this choice at the touch of a button has made viewers stimulus hungry. And advertising has scrambled to satisfy that craving, cramming ads with ever more complex visual and aural information in the hope of keeping viewers' fingers off the zapper. As dozens of commercials testify, the industry has bought into the notion that people who have more continually want more.
But maybe they want less. Maybe they just want to watch fish. Any ad professional who has thought seriously about 500 channels has worried about reaching and holding consumers who could be watching 499 things other than your sales message including a lot of other companies' sales messages. At what point do people become advertising-proof?. And will advertising-proof consumers seek out advertising-proof entertainment like Fish TV? After all, if there's room for a fish channel on a 56-channel system, think of what awaits with 10 times that capacity.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)