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Culture Watch

Entertainment Industry News by Christopher Gildemeister

For the Week of October 16, 2006

Previous Culture Watch columns have documented the increasing move toward sexually oriented and graphically violent programming on both general-interest and fine arts cable networks. Such programming is also edging out more wholesome fare on what used to be one of cable's most beneficial offerings, its documentary and educational networks.


Among cable's greatest benefits in its early years were the various documentary networks like Discovery or The Learning Channel which the medium offered. Such networks were ideal for basic cable, as they conveyed educational information to viewers and rarely if ever contained anything even mildly offensive or disturbing. The casual channel-flipper could find his attention captured by a fascinating bit of information, and profitably spend an hour or even an entire afternoon learning about subjects as disparate as domesticated animals, steam engines or the Kalahari Desert. Such programming was also perfect for children, as it could make learning painless and even enjoyable.


As with the rest of cable however, in recent years networks which were once such a boon to children, parents and teachers, and which realized the promise which cable held as a haven for those tired of commercial television, have become as inundated with graphic sex, violence and foul language as those networks they were originally intended to supplement.


The most striking example of this shift has been the Discovery Channel. Once, the network was dedicated to a mission of educating its viewers with travel and nature documentaries, programs about science and technology, and general explorations of knowledge such as reruns of the series Connections. Today the Discovery channel provides an "edgier" interpretation of its mission by running "docu-dramas" like Supervolcano (September 16) and factual programs such as Dirty Jobs, which focuses on distasteful and often gory forms of employment. But it is an increased fascination with violent crime which betrays Discovery's new direction. Viewers are now subjected to programming such as Fugitive Strike Force (July 6), Real Miami Cops (July 27) and, horrifically, the new series Most Evil, which is devoted to profiling the most heinous serial killers in recent history, with reports on Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy (July 20), a comparison of male and female serial killers (July 27), murderers who work in pairs (August 10), Ed Gein (August 17), Jeffrey Dahmer (August 24), and an episode which featured both a child molester and a man who killed 70 people (September 7). Where once a parent could safely tune in Discovery with children present, today's parents must wonder whether such programs represent "discoveries" to which they wish their children exposed.


An even more blatant example of Discovery's move towards violent and sexualized programming may be found on one of its spin-off networks. A viewer tuning in to a channel titled Discovery Health might plausibly suppose that he would learn something about health – perhaps fitness programs, or a documentary about combating disease. Such a viewer is in for a shock. Discovery Health's conception of "health" programming consists of prurient programs exploiting individuals' misfortunes and physical handicaps: Medical Incredible has featured a near-decapitation (July 3) and an armless mother (July 31). The network also seems obsessed with malformed babies, with episodes like the June 21st Plastic Surgery, in which twin toddlers undergo surgery; the special Conjoined Twins (August 17); and Skeleton Story (August 18), in which an infant's "mummified body" is examined.


But today's network programmers' conception of "health" could not be complete without an emphasis on sex. Among other enlightening fare, a Discovery Health viewer will find series like Sex Change, The Anatomy of Sex, Hypersexual Behavior (which "studies" sexual compulsions), and of course several episodes of  Plastic Surgery focused completely on breasts: both "asymmetrical breasts" and "breast reduction surgery" were highlighted on a pair of August 2nd episodes.


A tendency to move towards more exploitative and sensational fare seems endemic across Discovery's networks; another Discovery subsidiary, The Learning Channel, has moved in a similar direction with programs like 99 Most Bizarre, which has featured "mistakes by doctors" (June 22), "botched surgeries" (June 29) and "medical mistakes" (July 13); Untold Stories of the ER (August 9), with episodes showing a 7-year-old's cut-off arm and a group of mountain lion attack victims; Half Man, Full Life, about "a man born with half a body" (September 20); the chillingly-named When Surgery Tools Get Left Behind (September 13) and the similar 101 More Things Removed from the Human Body (August 9), as well as its own showings of Hypersexual Behavior. Like the A&E and AMC cable networks, The Learning Channel now advertises itself exclusively with the saccharine acronym "TLC" – as if being a channel devoted to learning is somehow something to be ashamed of. 


But it is not only the Discovery Channel and its subsidiaries which have chosen to emphasize violence and sex. Originally, the Court TV network promised to show Americans the inner workings of its legal system by televising trials and significant judicial events as they occurred. Yet Court TV now runs such tangential material as reruns of Cops and programs like Forensic Files, Texas SWAT, SWAT USA and Inside, which focuses on prison life, including gang warfare and drug use.


Meanwhile, other supposedly fact-based networks demonstrate the same trend, though in (as yet) lesser degrees. The Biography Channel was spun off from the Arts and Entertainment network after the success of its noted series Biography. Unfortunately, that program had already moved from biographies of historically significant figures such as George Washington and Winston Churchill to a mind-numbing focus on current celebrities like Britney Spears. Now, the network shows reruns of the crime drama Cold Case Files, "biographies" of serial killers like Gary Ridgway (July 31) and features programs like Notorious, about mothers who murder their children.


While it has primarily remained an admirable bastion of historical programming and a safe destination for child viewers, the History Channel has also displayed occasional tendencies towards "edgier" programming. In addition to the histrionics of Lee Ermey on the military-themed program Mail Call, a viewer may be surprised to encounter the movie The Road Warrior (July 15); the paean to anthropophagi Cannibalism Secrets Revealed! (June 18); and the TV14 DLSV-rated Roman Vice (August 19), in which "the decadence of ancient Rome is explored."


Perhaps the biggest surprise awaits the viewer who takes for granted the purely educational character of the National Geographic channel. For decades National Geographic magazine has delighted readers with beautiful photography and fascinating facts alike, while the National Geographic Society has been devoted to exploration and the pursuit of knowledge. What then is to be made of the National Geographic channel's increasing reliance on programming focused both on the bizarre -- such as UFOs: Seeing is Believing or Is It Real?, which features "documentaries" about sea monsters and Bigfoot -- and the criminal, such as Inside the Mafia (including a profile of John Gotti on September 3rd), San Quentin Unlocked, and Explorer (featuring criminal gangs like MS-13)?


While they have not succumbed to the wave of crime-and-sex-based programs which have engulfed their kindred, other fact-based networks nevertheless are not content with fulfilling their original mission and strive to emphasize "edgier" or more "glamorous" aspects. The Travel Channel maintains an enervating focus on shows about Las Vegas and related material like the World Poker Tour, while even the Weather Channel now seeks to attract a "younger demographic" with planned changes in its programming. Among the documentary networks, the Animal Planet channel alone retains a focus on its core ideals – though even it feels the need to spice Meerkat Manor with reality program-style narration.


Viewers who once looked to cable television as a haven from insipid sitcoms and dreary dramas, and who were lured by cable's promise of alternative and informative programming, have had their expectations betrayed by the perversion of such networks into sources of yet more sex and violence. Viewers in search of reality-based shows are instead given TV's version of "reality," which often bears little resemblance to the world around the viewer. But cable's greatest betrayal has been of its child viewers, as will be discussed in the next Culture Watch.


"I'm astounded, with all these cable channels, that there isn't anything to watch…I need something soul-fulfilling, enriching and beautiful. All these reality shows make people look stupid. What's the gratification in that?" --  Sharon Benge, host of the talk show Art Matters (Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, July 25, 2006)

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