|Posted by Aleck Loker on January 16, 2012 at 3:30 PM|
In the last couple of years, television programming has hit an all time low. I stopped watching “network” programs many years ago in favor of the documentary programs on the Learning Channel, the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and National Geographic’s channel. Over the years, those channels have become a huge disappointment. Now the focus is on “reality programs.” If what is portrayed on these channels truly depicts real life in America, as a culture we are doomed.
In recent years, a program success on one channel has spawned numerous copycat programs—often on the same channel. For instance, Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel led to Swords, Lobster Wars, and River Monsters. The first show documented the life of the Alaskan king crab fishery, showcasing the high-risk, high-reward profession. Why anyone would want to watch multiple editions of this show mystifies me. How long can you watch a bunch of adrenalin junkies bounced and slammed about on an icy deck week after week? In any case, this plot has been plagiarized multiple times leading to similar shows about people who catch swordfish, lobsters, and various inedible, river-dwelling species.
The success of Deadliest Catch, presumably because of the public fascination with hyper-testosterone-laden men in conflict with nature (but more often in conflict with each other) has led copycat producers to release shows such as: Ax Men, Swamp People, Big Shrimpin’, Ice Road Truckers, IRT Deadliest Roads, Alaska State Troopers, Alaska Wing Men, Flying Wild, and Gold Rush, to name but a few on Discovery, National Geographic and the History Channel. The first show became quickly boring, the clones listed above would turn your brain to soggy couscous before the second commercial.
American viewers must be fascinated with serendipitous, unearned fortune. The PBS Antiques Roadshow, which presents appraisals of all sorts of collectibles and artifacts, has enjoyed popularity for many years; presumably the viewers can identify with the ordinary people who find they have had in their possession a book, a clock, a lamp, or other household item that proves to be of incredible value—unknown to them for years. The flip side is equally entertaining: the eager owner of an artifact expected to be worth a fortune who finds that the item is a fake or not what they expected. Seeing someone taken down a peg is always entertaining. So the inevitable has happened; Antiques Roadshow’s success has led to many productions that have plagiarized the show’s plot.
One of the first to do so was Pawn Stars. With the incredible originality embodied in American TV production, Pawn Stars entertains us by showing real people bringing in their treasures to a Las Vegas pawn shop to have them evaluated and to sell them. The same dynamic that makes Antiques Roadshow a success—the thrill of seeing people’s hopes dashed—has made the History Channel’s Pawn Stars a success. But with an added bonus: the appraisers on the PBS Antiques Roadshow are for the most part civilized, considerate, experts in their fields--in other words relatively boring; whereas the principal characters on Pawn Stars are argumentative, mildly hostile towards each other, and often profane--thus more entertaining. Pawn Stars clones are now proliferating like feral rabbits. We can now view Auction Kings, Cajun Pawn Stars, American Pickers, and Real Deal, to name only a few.
Fascination with “reality TV” has led to a profusion of shows about all sorts of professions. For example, The Learning Channel has given us Cake Boss, a show about—wait for it—a cake bakery populated with foul-mouthed, hyperactive, aggressive bakers. What lesson should we “learn” from this Learning Channel production? Perhaps, don’t go to work in a bakery. Not surprisingly, we now have DC Cupcakes, Kitchen Boss, Next Great Baker, and Fabulous Cakes. One thing the producers at the Learning Channel have learned: get a good show and beat it to death.
Along those same lines, the Discovery Channel pioneered a show about a dysfunctional family of motorcycle mechanics who spent each episode yelling obscenities at each other, throwing various objects at each other, or having similar testosterone fueled tantrums, while always miraculously meeting impossible deadlines—always self-inflicted. That show, American Chopper, has led to American Guns, Sons of Guns, and similar programs that depend on the entertainment value of men behaving badly while operating dangerous equipment.
Finally, the Learning Channel has brought the viewing public a plethora of programs that appeal to the voyeur—the thrill of watching someone totally screwed up by mental illness, drug addiction, physical abnormalities, or aberrant social behavior. In this category we find: My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Drugs, Inc., Taboo, Locked up Abroad, What Not to Wear, Hairy Bikers, Gangland, Hoarding: Buried Alive, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, Freaky Eaters, My Strange Addiction, Sister Wives, Strange Sex. And my nominee for the worst all-time television production: Toddlers and Tiaras, which appears to condone pedophilia in the way extremely young girls are portrayed performing at the strident urging of their clearly warped parents.
Another theme riding the recent crest is the depiction of wretched excess. Examples include Say Yes to the Dress, where brides-to-be are filmed spending incredible sums on white dresses that they will only wear once—sums that would finance a new business startup, or a year in a really good university, or their rent for a year or more. Also in this category of grossly wasteful spending are the following shows: Four Weddings, Selling New York, and Selling LA.
Not only is there very little to be learned on the Learning Channel, nothing much to discover on the Discovery Channel, and very little history on the History Channel, when National Geographic became Nat Geo, another icon faded away. All these channels have succumbed to the temptation to copy rather than create. Alaska State Troopers, Alaska Wing Men and Border Wars, all Nat Geo productions, are clones of Deadliest Catch in that they portray shocking activities in various male-dominated, high-risk professions. They all have essentially the same plot, just different venues. And you can bet, the principal characters will be aggressive and profane. Real history productions must be a very small percentage of the History Channel programming. Instead, they bring us Top Shot, More Extreme Marksmen, Full Metal Jousting, which have only a tenuous connection to history. Why they produce Ancient Aliens and UFO Hunters can only be imagined.
Current television programming represents the worst of American behavior: a fascination with shocking, excessively-aggressive or violent behavior. And remember, most of the programs identified above are filmed in “real-life” American workplaces: fishing fleets, bakeries, small businesses, boutiques. If the people portrayed in these television shows truly represent Americans in the workforce, God help us.