Alternately titled “If You Bite Everyone Wearing Water-skis, No Idiot Can Jump You.” TL; DR version at the very end
At the risk of sounding very “get off my lawn” or “that shit they listen to now isn’t music, its noise,” allow me to take you on a stroll down the lane of fond memories, back to a time when there were cable networks with mostly educational missions. I am not claiming that ratings were ignored back in the days long gone, only that there were some principles certain channels were not willing to sacrifice in pursuit of a larger share.
In the beginning, there were networks. And apparently, they were good, at least according to my mother. (I’m not that old.) But as technology advanced, the ability to provide more viewing choices through the magic of cable television moved from fantasy to reality, rendering television sets with 13 channel dials obsolete. When video first began plotting the homicide of the radio star, cable already had buried UHF. Channel counts rose to unimaginable heights as channels with niche programming came into being. Mtv became a cultural phenomenon that changed the whole music industry. ESPN moved sports from a 5 minute part of the evening news cast to an all day affair, With CNN and then CNN Headline News the 24 hour news cycle was born. Lifetime provided a home for movies about abused, cheated on, and otherwise done wrong women. TBS brought Atlanta Braves baseball games into everyone’s house and launched the Turner media empire, eventually leading to every citizen with a television having seen every episode of Law & Order. When our cable system added Comedy Central we had a total of 48 channels. (We could have had more, but we never had HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel, or Skinamax. To my horny male pubescent self’s constant disappointment.) At that point, we thought we had an endless amount of variety. Anyone who watched early cable channels desperately try to fill air time had to assume the saturation point had been reached. (Australian Rules Football on ESPN anyone?) Oh, how wrong we were.
One of the niches filled by cable channels was one of edutainment. The History Channel earned its reputation as “All World War II, All the Time” during its early years. The Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel moved science and nature documentaries off of PBS and onto the cable box. As cable expanded, other channels followed like The Learning Channel and Animal Planet. The programming wasn’t always the hardest science; often entertainment was more a goal than education, but you could be reasonably sure that the information you were being spoon fed was at least not false. It was during these heady early days of edutainment channels that Shark Week first made its debut on The Discovery Channel. It is what it sounds like; a week of documentaries dedicated to sharks.
I am not sure when the train jumped off the rails for the edutainment channels. The cable television landscape was evolving quickly. Technology kept advancing, erasing any realistic limits to the number of channels possible. The internet changed the way society worked; how people socialized, how they got information, how they received entertainment. All time delays were shattered as instantaneous access became possible it became demanded. Far from airing Australian Rules Football, ESPN expanded to several channels where if no sports were occurring they could talk about them endlessly. Fox News showed that a news channel didn’t have to concern itself with unimportant details such as facts and evidence. Ah, yes, Mtv. Like they changed the music industry with the advent of music videos, they later would change the television industry with reality television.Mtv moved from airing music videos, which could now be accessed instantly without sitting through countless songs you hated on the internet, to cheaply produced shows along the lines of reality filler programming they had early experimental success with. Where once there had been The Real World and later Road Rules, was found the shows that would carry them to a new generation; The Jersey Shore, Sixteen and Pregnant, My Super Sweet Sixteen, and so on.
Reality television had positives that television channels could not ignore. First, it was popular. People are fascinated with other people, they like to watch them live their lives, to experience their drama, to be able to step into someone’s shoes from the comfort of your couch, and reality shows tapped into this in a way scripted shows couldn’t. Sure, how much of any reality show is actually reality is an open question, but the appearance of real life unscripted was addictive. But the most important thing it had going for it was probably the simple fact that reality shows are dirt cheap to produce. Actors? Why bother? Writers? Ha. Put a camera crew in an interesting persons house and you have a show. Hold a singing competition. Stick people on an island. Do whatever you need to that doesn’t involve actors and a script and see if people will watch.
Reality alone picked off the first of the edutainment channels, to the point where I doubt many people even know what TLC stands for anymore. The only learning you get from watching TLC now is that; 1) Having 19 children is fucking irresponsible, 2) The Long Island Medium is a horrible cold reader and obnoxious enough to cause me physical pain within 30 seconds, and 3) Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is the most obscene thing ever to air on television. Draw the police line, one channel down.
TLC, unfortunately, was not the only place that reality invaded. For some reason The History Channel turned into a channel about a pawn shop and antique pickers. But some weathered the reality storm better than others, and attempted to educate through their reality shows. Mythbusters at its core is a reality show, about two special effect wizards and their assistants who test urban legends. and it is probably the best show on television from a scientific, skeptical viewpoint. Animal Planet went with Animal Cops, which told the story of law enforcement officers who protect animals from cruelty and abuse, and held up as heroes these often overlooked people. Later came Swamp Wars, which followed the exploits of Miami’s Venom One team as they protect both animal and human as society pushes farther into the wild. River Monsters is a great exploration of the unexpected creatures that live in the Earth’s rivers; Jeremy Wade takes a scientific approach to reports and legends, educating us on these often frightening creatures by catching and releasing them.
But edutainment channels always had a dirty little secret that was never that secret: the paranormal sells. Ever since the days of In Search Of…. it was known that nothing brings ratings better than the unknown. While the networks had no shame about airing credulous shit like Unsolved Mysteries, the edutainment channels tried to stay above it the best that they could. After all, the biggest problem with the paranormal is the stunning lack of evidence. They would experiment with shows exploring paranormal subjects, documentaries on the search for Sasquatchi, or Nessie, shows that told anecdotal ghost stories and the like. Some, like NatGeo’s Is It Real?! were brilliant, always making sure to tell both sides of the story and coming down firmly on the skeptical side. Others, like Discovery’s A Haunting are better left ignored. These shows were always rating draws, especially those that leaned towards the paranormal side of the argument. But there was only so many ways to tell a ghost story, only so many times the same “evidence” could be shown. Once you show the Patterson film once, all you are left with for a show on Bigfoot are tracks that can be faked and eye witnesses that can be mistaken. It is hard to fill many hours of programming with nothing.
And then a few idiots on ScyFy stumbled onto the magical formula that changed everything. One part reality television plus one part paranormal television equals cheap ratings gold! Send a couple of morons with night vision cameras and some fancy equipment that detects anomalies, add in some questionable ethics (the willingness to fake shit) and you have Ghost Hunters. And with Ghost Hunters the flood gates opened.
UFO FIles, Monster Quest, Ancient Aliens, Finding Bigfoot, the list goes on and on. Grab a camera crew and send it off to find something paranormal. Who cares if they never find anything, who cares if there is nothing to find, people will watch cause they will watch anything paranormal, and paranormal reality is dirt cheap. The soul of edutainment, whatever soul once existed, had been sold.
I am not naive. I understand that to remain on the air a station needs to be profitable, and that means advertisers, and to get advertisers you need ratings. My argument here is not that NatGeo, Discovery, History, and Animal Planet should immediately go to all documentaries, all the time and slit their own throat. But these channels have lost the “edu” part of edutainment, and are now at times pure entertainment, at times edutainment, and most disturbingly some times actively misleading. At this stage, these channels are risking the alienation of those who have watched for ages, of their biggest supporters and most loyal viewers in the quest for the almighty rating, and this is just as dangerous to their survival as ignoring ratings all together.
At first, there was edutainment channels, and they were good, but poor ratings draws. Documentaries have a limited audience, and some people do not want education with their entertainment, just as some want no chocolate anywhere near their peanut butter. But some viewers were drawn to these channels, those who love history, who are interested in science, who love animals, who just love knowledge. And we watched, and we watched, but our numbers were not large enough.
With reality suddenly edutainment could flood the airwaves with cheap shit to see what would stick, while maintaining some semblance of education. A show about a pawn shop could delve into the history of the items, shows on the Amish or other breakaway religious sects could explore their culture, shows on moonshiners could look at life in the backwoods, various concepts in Alaska exposed a part of America totally foreign to most American citizens; they were cheap and at times the educational content was questionable, but they brought in the viewers and made the channels stronger, and for that us original viewers accepted them. Our documentaries would still air, and with the profits born from the womb of reality shows, they were better than ever: Life, Planet Earth, Wild Russia, Blue Planet. The Universe. Naked Science. We could share the channels.
Then the paranormal reality show became the norm, and we sighed and covered our faces with our palms. The credulity shown on these shows made us sad little pandas; while we were skeptics who demanded extraordinary evidence to support extraordinary claims, we knew that not everyone watches television with a bullshit detector at the ready. While we doubted that Animal Planet would go as far with Finding Bigfoot as SyFy was willing to go with Ghost Hunters (see the Jacket Pull among other examples if you think they are above board), we still knew that just being on a channel with the reputation of Animal Planet would give it credibility, just as being on History give Ancient Aliens and Monster Quest a boost. When something is on SyFy, you always have in the back of your mind that “this is the channel that made Sharknado.” When it airs on a channel known for trusted documentaries, the lines start to blur.
We were now watching a good friend struggle with addiction. The friend is these channels, and instead of heroin, the drug is ratings and profits. We worried, and shook our heads, and tsk’d tsk’d, but then a 12 part documentary like Life would show up, our breath would be taken away, and we’d find our hand on the remote, keying in the familiar channel number once again.
And then Mermaids: The Body Found aired, and nothing would ever be the same again.
This wasn’t a cheap reality show following questionable people researching very questionable phenomenon. This wasn’t a paranormal documentary examining whatever evidence they could drum up supporting a subject, liberally seasoned with eye witnesses that while no doubt sincere in most cases, do not understand how easy it is for the human mind to be fooled, and ignorant of the way human memory actually performs. No, this was a mockumentary, a documentary filmed in an alternative universe where the body of a mermaid was actually found. It had actors playing the role of scientists, talking about their earth shattering discovery just as real scientists would in an actual documentary. The evidence was shown, the discovery dramatized, the scientific theory it proved explained in great detail, the evolutionary history of the species detailed along with biological facts on the species life cycle, feeding cycles, relationship with dolphins, and supposed current habitats, all with stunningly lifelike computer animation. It had everything a real documentary would have except for one thing: any relation to fucking reality.
I turned on Mermaids: The Body Found five minutes into it. Not once, until the end credits, did it give any indication that it was anything but a real documentary on an actual scientific discovery. I am sure they aired a disclaimer at the beginning, and that was one of the defenses Animal Planet used when questioned on the decision to air it. Not fucking good enough. They could have aired a disclaimer after every commercial break and I’m not sure if it would be good enough. You are a television channel with a reputation for airing factual documentaries on animals. I promise you that there are people in this country who believe the United States government found the body of a mermaid because of this piece of shit. Seriously, have you seen the latest statistics for what paranormal things people believe in? Maybe they were flipping channels and only caught 20 minutes of it. Maybe they only saw a clip on the web. Maybe they DVR’d it and skipped the commercials and the beginning and end where the disclaimers were. You can make the argument that people are intelligent enough to know that mermaids aren’t real, and I will call bullshit on you and point out that a large percentage of Americans believe the Earth is six thousand years old and that at one point one man and his family built a boat big enough to shove every living creature, including the dinosaurs, into it so they could float on a flood that covered the highest mountain. Before you have time to say “well, that’s different, that is a religious belief” I will have already pointed out that 20% believe autism is caused by vaccines, 21% believe a UFO crashed at Roswell, 13% believe Obama is the anti-Christ, 9% believe fluoride is added to our water for sinister reasons, 5% believe Paul McCartney died in 1966, 15% believe television signals have mind control elements added by either media or the government, and 4% believe reptoids control world politics, and none of this is counting people who answered “I’m not sure” to any of the questions! Some one, somewhere, believes in mermaids now because of this show, and for a channel with a mission of, if not educational, at least factual content this is inexcusable.
When this show aired, we let our opinions be heard, those of us who have watched the channels from the beginning, who form their core audience, who have never chosen 16 and Pregnant over something with educational value. “Yes,” we told Animal Planet, “We understand you need ratings, and viewers, and profits, but this is where we draw the line, this is a bridge too far. We, your core audience, disagrees with this program.”
And Animal Planet listened to our concerns, and then they reviewed the ratings report. And they gave us their answer:
Mermaids: The New Evidence. Yep. A sequel. And the most watched show in the history of Animal Planet.
What can we say? Selling your soul has its benefits, otherwise no one would ever do it. Fuck you, fuck integrity, we want the ratings. You may want science, facts, and evidence, but fake documentaries on mermaids brings the viewers. Hell, just to spite you, we’ll have Jeremy Wade waste an hour of River Monsters hunting for Nessie. Thanks for being loyal all those years, now kindly fuck the fuck off.
And we heard their answer, and we sighed, shook our heads, and mourned the loss of another old friend.
Why am I writing this now? I’ve mentioned this topic before, sure, but what caused this 3000 word epic post on the corruption of edutainment television in the search of ratings to come today, this week, this month?
This week is Shark Week on the Discovery channel. I’ve been watching Shark Week since the first one, way back in 1987. While I prefer the documentaries on sharks rather than the shows dealing with shark bite survivors, there is always something worth watching at least once a day, and for the past decade I have had the television tuned to Discovery from the start of Shark Week until the end. I’m only paying attention to it a small percentage of the time, but it is always on in the background. It is the one week during the year that I know I can turn on Discovery and know what I am going to get; no reality shows, no crab fishing, no ghost stories, no Sasquatchi, just sharks. And this year, it just so happened that I was especially looking forward to this Shark Week. You see, I have a thing for prehistoric animals. I own all the Walking with Dinosaurs, and countless other documentaries on animals that used to inhabit the Earth. I don’t know why, but if you want to distract me for an hour, just put anything dealing with creatures that lived a few million years ago on the tube and I am lost to the world. One of these creatures that has always fascinated me is Megalodon, a monster sized shark that “lived approximately 28 to 1.5 million years ago, during the Cenozoic Era.” It just so happened that this years Shark Week was set to kick off with a documentary on Megalodon, and I admit I was looking forward to it for longer than I’ve looked forward to any television that wasn’t named Game of Thrones in years. (So I looked forward to it for about a week. Still, for me, that is a lot.)
Shark Week came, and it was time for Megalodon. The popcorn was popped, the coffee brewed, hell, if I still smoked I would have had a bowl packed. I turned on the television and sat down to learn a little something while being entertained.
In the words of Wil Wheaton, this is what greeted me.:
So last night, I tuned in to watch the first entry in this year’s sharkstravaganza: a documentary about one of the coolest megasharks ever, the prehistoric Megalodon. This thing was freaking huge, with teeth the size of an adult human’s hand, and it is very, very extinct. Discovery’s special started out with what appeared to be “found footage” of some people on a fishing boat that gets hit and sunk by something huge … and I immediately knew something was amiss. The “found footage” was shot the way a professional photographer shoots things, not the way a vacationer holds their video camera. There was no logical way the camera could survive the salt water for the footage to be found. The footage was alleged to have been found in April … but then it got so much worse: Discovery Channel started Shark Week with a completely fake, completely made-up, completely bullshit “documentary” and they lied to their audience about it. They presented it as real.
Yep. I tuned in for a documentary on one of the most deadly creatures to ever live on our planet, and what I got was “Sharkmaid: The Footage Found.”
Let’s continue to see what Wil has to say:
And then I realized why I was (and am) so angry: I care about education. I care about science. I care about inspiring people to learn about the world and universe around us. Sharks are fascinating, and megalodon was an absolutely incredible creature! Discovery had a chance to get its audience thinking about what the oceans were like when megalodon roamed and hunted in them. It had a chance to even show what could possibly happen if there were something that large and predatory in the ocean today … but Discovery Channel did not do that. In a cynical ploy for ratings, the network deliberately lied to its audience and presented fiction as fact. Discovery Channel betrayed its audience.
An entire generation has grown up watching Discovery Channel, learning about science and biology and physics, and that generation trusts Discovery Channel. We tune into Discovery Channel programming with the reasonable expectation that whatever we’re going to watch will be informative and truthful. We can trust Discovery Channel to educate us and our children about the world around us! That’s why we watch it in the first place!
Last night, Discovery Channel betrayed that trust during its biggest viewing week of the year. Discovery Channel isn’t run by stupid people, and this was not some kind of mistake. Someone made a deliberate choice to present a work of fiction that is more suited for the SyFy channel as a truthful and factual documentary. That is disgusting, and whoever made that decision should be ashamed.
If this had happened on just about any other network, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But Discovery Channel is more than just disposable entertainment on cable television. Discovery Channel inspired an entire generation to “explore your world”, and it is trusted to be truthful. Discovery Channel says its mission is to satisfy curiosity and make a difference in people’s lives by providing the highest quality content, services and products that entertain, engage and enlighten. There is nothing high quality or enlightening about deliberately misleading your audience during what is historically an informative and awesome week of programming.
The Discovery Channel and other edutainment channels have followed a long path to get to where they are today, a path that forked at some point towards a direction where ratings matter more than their own mission statement. Viewers like me have put up with a lot during the years as these stations looked for ways to be profitable, understanding that some tradeoffs were worth it in the long run if they led to quality educational and entertaining documentaries. I can put up with Call of the WIldman. I can deal with Amish Mafia. I can even find humor in Finding Bigfoot while appreciating the viewers it brings in. If Deadliest Catch is what signs the checks, then bring it on. These mockumentaries are too much.
I am not self-important enough to think that a one man boycott will damage a media giant like Discovery. But they have made it clear that they do not care what those of us who have been watching since the beginning think. Perhaps they will be more profitable than ever without the anchor of evidence holding them back. We know viewers tune in for shows like these. But maybe someday, while they are counting their money, they will read their mission statement again and think about the shows they are airing.
And maybe then, I’ll turn the channel on again. Until then, the skull and crossbones have been raised. I’ll download River Monsters , Mythbusters, and any specific documentary I want to watch. The channels have been deleted off my television, my remote skips right over them. They may not care.
But I do.
TL, DR version? Go read WIl Wheaton’s blog post.