The 26th Shark Week just kicked off this week with a “documentary” on a gigantic prehistoric shark, Megalodon. Following a record 4.8 million viewers, the documentary was criticized by fans of the channel’s special for being a fraud. Of course Megalodon has been extinct for 1.5 million years, but that didn’t stop Discovery Channel from airing the documentary as a fact-based account of the species continued existence. To educated viewers like myself, it was clearly a fake, I turned it off after 15 minutes in disgust. But to many, it was real. And this is a serious problem. Because today ‘The Learning Channel,’ ‘The History Channel,’ and ‘Discovery’ networks are no longer about teaching anything. They have pursued easy money with profitable programming at the expense of saying something new.
When I grew up, I was always a big fan of the Discovery networks. I had a mock-science lab in my basement and frequently found myself watching shows on TLC about violent storms or the Universe. I was drawn at a very young age to programs that informed me in an entertaining and fascinating manner. Even the History Channel at the time was heavily geared toward documentaries; fascinating ones on the untold stories of the American Revolution or Robert Ballard’s historic mission to the Titanic. Today as an adult I still retain much of what I learned from these programs.
Now, today’s youth are treated only very rarely to informative documentaries. Instead, History earns most of its money from reality TV, as do TLC, Discovery and even Animal Planet. There is no incentive to spend millions of dollars on a documentary when these networks can invest minimal amounts of money into a reality program which often has nothing to do with the networks vision or purpose. TLC has ‘Honey Boo Boo,’ not awesome weather documentaries. Discovery has one of four or so ‘Hoarders’ shows, not exotic documentaries of forgotten worlds. History has the original Pawn reality series ‘Pawn Stars,’ not anything on our nation’s past. Just like Hollywood, TV has also just copied other networks high-concept ideas, similar to the clone films I mentioned in a previous post.
Unless the powers that be change things, we will have no outlet for educational programming on traditional TV. I do believe Hollywood will start to become more creatively diverse, and I have long maintained faith in that industry to reform itself out of economic necessity (and given 2013 performances, I’m hoping sooner than later). But TV is entirely different. There is no financial need for it to creatively reform itself, there is no bubble growing in that industry. Unlike Hollywood, it doesn’t cost $50-$150 million to put out a single product. As mentioned, reality TV is super cheap. And as long as people keep tuning in, TV networks will keep spitting them out.
So what is the more sophisticated TV viewer to do? Buy a Netflix Streaming subscription. Their informative program libraries have increasingly made up for what TV refuses to put out. Additionally, their original programming is fantastic, and is geared toward sophisticated audiences; something modern TV (outside premium channels) fails to do. The internet has made up for where traditional TV has lacked. Creativity and informative programming is alive and well, you just have to know where to look for it — and TLC, History and Discovery isn’t where you are going to find it.