Discovery Channel’s ‘fake stuff’ love affair apparently over

New Discovery Channel boss Rich Ross apparently decides to send much of channel’s phony, content-free programming packing. Good choice, if he really delivers.

Hungry anaconda.
Does this anaconda look hungry? (Screen capture from Discovery Channel video promo for "Eaten Alive")

WASHINGTON, January 14, 2015 – Back in the day, you could actually enjoy watching regular programming on the Bethesda-based Discovery Channel. Discovery and its minion channels often provided what “education-lite”—relatively slick, reasonably science-oriented populist programming packaged for popular consumption.

Discovery’s shows tended steer clear of clichés like those endlessly tedious and always politically-correct talking heads that make typical PBS fare so utterly boring. Discovery’s talking heads were animated, and generally didn’t blather on. You could count on the channel’s program to be fun and mildly educational.

But not any more.

Discovery Channel programming of more recent vintage has notably deteriorated in quality and content. One example: Discovery bigwigs appear to have patented the idiotic marketing device I call the “could” question, endlessly inserting this rhetorical device in much of their programming. As in, “Could this simple walking stick have been the rod Moses used to part the Red Sea?”

Delivered by voice-over announcer quivering with excitement, the “could” question is an instant cue for “cut to the commercial”—a cue we get to endure anywhere from four to seven times per program.

Making the “could” question format even more infuriating is the simple fact that rarely, if ever, is the question directly answered, even after we’ve endured the repetitious commercial packages waiting for that answer. Viewers feel like dupes, having been force-fed with all those commercials awaiting one or more key elements or facts that are never delivered.

Worse than this daily litany of unanswered or inadequately answered questions is the recent proliferation of what you could charitably call “fake” shows.

Notable examples include two programs that purported to search for real mermaids, and another pair of shows promising to uncover a massive dinosaur shark that “could” still be alive today.

Purported Megalodon siting.
Oh-Oh! Is this Megalodon? Or a horribly lost Loch Ness Monster. (Screen capture from Discovery Channel promotional video)

But in reality, as a recent Deadline (Hollywood) article noted, what viewers really saw on TV were “two fake mermaid documentaries, and two suggesting the Megalodon still roams the ocean — the second of which, Megalodon: The New Evidence became the highest rated episode of the network’s most recent Shark Week, with 4.8 million viewers.” The “Megalodon,” whether he actually exists or not, obviously appeals to the substantial low-information voter demographic.

Still more Discovery TV fakery involved a recent, endlessly-promoted program christened Eaten Alive. In this one, the network promised to follow the adventures of a daring dude who, having donned a protective suit, would allow himself to be swallowed by a giant anaconda.

In reality, they never quite pulled off the stunt on the show. Worse, Discovery and the program’s producers incurred the undying wrath of those always vigilant animal rights freakazoids who, with some justice this time, complained loudly and bitterly about the clear and obvious abuse of the show’s target serpent.

Paul Rosolie in anti-anaconda super-suit.
Paul Rosolie in super-suit before he doesn’t get eaten by an Anaconda. (Screen capture from Discovery Channel “Eaten Alive” promo video)

The aforementioned shows and others like them are 100% expensive-looking fake documentaries. They’re no better than carny barker stuff, lots of marketing with viewer payoffs ranging from zero to bitter disappointment. Only this and nothing more.

Endlessly promoted weeks ahead of time, Discovery’s fake shows typically entice eager viewers to stay home and tune in—viewers who are doomed to feel they’ve wasted their time watching what these shows really are: hype-driven, pseudo science, fake crap.

But new Discovery Channel chief Rich Ross, according to Dateline, will allegedly broom Discovery’s fake crap out the back door. Ross spoke to reporters and TV critics during a recent Winter TV Press Tour.

“‘It’s not whether I’m a fan of it,’ Ross said,” addressing the fake program issue. “‘I don’t think it’s right for Discovery Channel, and think it’s something that has run its course. They’ve done very well… but I don’t think it’s something that’s right for us.’

“Could” this be the end of Discovery’s crap fake programming binge? (Sorry.)

“‘Do you haves plans to repair relationships with scientists and educators who felt those shows betrayed a mission and gave false information?’ one critic asked eagerly,” according to Deadline.

“Ross explained patiently he’d made a very strong statement this morning as to the direction in which he’s taking Discovery Channel… ‘it’s very important to us, and to me, that when people are telling stories and they’re delivering information that it is true and can be entertaining as well, which is mandatory.’”

Striking a telling blow for feminism, Ross also observed that Discovery is “‘more narrowly niched than it needs to be,’” noting that he “intends to  return Discovery Channel to the ‘No. 1 brand for whole family and not just for the men in the family.’”

So much for the patriarchy.

“Discovery’s recent, critically reviled Eaten Alive,” reports Deadline, “was ‘the right intention, with a packaging that was deeply misleading,’” according to  Ross, who added that the show’s “‘star and would be snake snack, tour guide/snake enthusiast Paul Rosolie cares deeply about snakes and wanted to draw attention’ to them.”

“‘To me,’” Ross continued, “‘you don’t have to be so sensational, and over-promise… The fervor of that story kind of got out of control.’” He prefers a more honest story policy in which “‘the story is clearer and it is what you want to watch but you don’t expect something at the end of it that can’t possibly happen.’”

Ross wrapped things up by pledging “‘I don’t believe you’ll see a person being eaten by a snake in my time – I can’t over-promise that, but that’s how I feel today,’ Ross said, as TV critics resisted the urge to give him a standing ovation,” Deadline’s report noted with a twinkle of cynicism.

CDN notes that Ross said all the right words during his recent presser. But we’ll stay on alert and monitor upcoming programming created under Ross’ leadership to see if Discovery’s fake crap is really dispensed with.

Who knows? Maybe it “could” really happen.

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  • Terry, it seems Discovery Channel was among the first to try and translate the online tactic of using “clickbait” to attract eyeballs to TV. The problem is this: online, when you realize you’ve been had, you leave and you’ve only wasted all of 10 seconds. On TV, it might be a half hour or even an hour before you realize you’ve been fooled. Ten seconds is nothing to get mad about, but a half hour wasted would tick anyone off. The rest of the TV/video universe should take heed.