Tonight on The Sundance Channel is the first episode of The Al Franken Show, an edited one hour version of Franken's three-hour Air America Radio program in the vain of Howard Stern's E! show. I'm not anticipating such a scintillating 60 minutes of television, but it should be interesting to check-out. Howard Stern's show works (if you're a fan) because so much of what happens on his radio show involves some sort of performance or visual element that listeners will make a point of trying to see. Franken's show will simply be like an edited version of Imus on MSNBC: he'll just be sitting and talking. In fact, if they use any of the little skits I've heard on the radio show, I imagine the illusion created by radio will simply be killed.
But who knows? Franken is funny, and the show doesn't conflict with The Daily Show (it starts at 11:30 PM -- good call Sundance), so why not give it a shot. The radio show itself has been uneven, but maybe in an edited form it will appear tighter and more compelling.
The one thing I do find interesting is the growing identities of both The Sundance Channel and IFC. Both networks were started as homes for independent film, but those mandates have certainly expanded and the personalities of each channel has become more, for lack of a better word, independent of the other.
While there is still plenty of crossover in programming, IFC seems to have become the more entertainment-oriented and "mainstream" of the indie channels. Their original programming has included a game show (Ultimate Film Fanatic), a chatfest (Dinner for Five) and, starting this Friday, a reality series (Film School). The energetic style of their interstitials and entire network attitude seems more in tune with an MTV, albeit indie, quick-cutting, raucous mood targeted at the youngish viewer who wants to see indie films with more bang for their buck. Movies are still the focus of the channel, and they show a broad spectrum of titles both foreign and American, but many of them seem to be more "big name" indies than what one sometimes finds on Sundance. Or at least, they have a more entertainment-centric focus on the way they program their movies with weekly series like "Pulp Indies" and "Samurai Sundays."
That's not a judgment call; it's just an interesting distinction. Where IFC has become entertainment focused, Sundance has turned more towards examining the real world, especially socially and politically. This may not come as such a surprise considering the channel grew out of Robert Redford's Utah-based Sudance Insitute and Film Festival not to mention Redford's own political activism. Sundance Channel now dedicates its entire Monday schedule to documentaries, calling it DocDay. If you were watching last night, you would have caught, Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War from Robert Greenwald, the same guy who did the recent doc Outfoxed about Rupert Murdoch's Fox News. Additionally, Sundance has been airing the old HBO series Tanner '88 in which Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau guided the audience through a fake presidential campaign in mockumentary style. Sundance has even commissioned new episodes of the series, revisiting the characters in the present day looking at the current political situation, which are supposed to premiere in October.
Sundance also presents a calmer mood with its bumpers and interstitials, usually involving some peaceful scenic mountain range or trees and a minimalist soundtrack. Additionally, Sundance's programming seems to be organized in a more educational manner, and I don't simply mean the documentaries. This month, for example, Sundance features "Film American Style", a weekly look at a few of the most distinct films from the most important filmmakers of the 1970s: Taxi Driver, The Last Detail, The Last Picture Show and Dressed to Kill (technically, 1980).
Don’t get me wrong: Sundance shows plenty of "mainstream" indie films and IFC shows it's share of more obscure or older movies, and IFC can be plenty series while Sundance is simply entertaining. I mean, there isn't that much difference between IFC's "Pulp Indies" and John Cameron Mitchell-hosted "Escape From Hollywood" and Sundance's Bob Odenkirk-hosted "Midnight Snack." Still, more so than in years past, these two channels have developed their own identities and started moving down individual paths as opposed to trying to share the same one without losing sight of their initial missions (as AMC did when it stopped caring about how "classic" their movies were, leaving TCM as the only worthy channel dedicated to classic cinema). At the end of the day, that's good news for all of us.