Opinion: Op-Eds

Cable TV: Where truth is chum and viewers are chumps

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TV,Op-Eds,Analysis

In 2010 the Discovery Channel broadcast a documentary called "King Tut Unwrapped," spotlighting state-of-the-art DNA analysis on the mummified remains of some of Egypt's highest profile pharaohs, including the famous boy king Tutankhamun.

The goal: Literally unwrap the mummies in order to metaphorically unwrap the mystery of Egypt's tangled and legendary 18th dynasty.

The final film, years in the making, contained a scene seemingly showing the moment of success: Scientists congratulating each other in an ostentatious display of affection and celebration over the new information they had uncovered.

But, as Jo Marchant relates in her excellent new book, "The Shadow King," what Discovery viewers saw was entirely staged: The real eureka moment had occurred weeks prior - and off-camera.

To be sure, re-enactments are standard fare for these types of documentaries. However, no disclaimer appeared on-screen to alert the viewer that what they were seeing was staged.

One can perhaps forgive producers for wanting to present such a moment to their viewers. But a skilled documentarian could convey the jubilation of that moment merely - and more honestly - by showing the scientists talking about their breakthrough.

Discovery went the other way. It was a small ethical lapse in what was otherwise a noble effort to resurrect the truth regarding Ancient Egypt and its mysterious tomb-dwelling denizens. But like many small ethical lapses, this one presaged a more comprehensive moral collapse, a loss of integrity that has tainted, not only Discovery, but the entire edifice of nonfiction popular programming.

For example: This August saw the premiere of Discovery's 26th annual Shark Week, a celebration of all things shark, featuring original programming that explores shark history and behavior. Discovery commissions and films much of this programming itself, and has, in the process, given wide audience to a rather narrow scientific field, all while dulling our late-summer television doldrums.

This year Shark Week opened with a documentary about scientists on the hunt for a 100-foot monster shark called Megalodon, commonly thought to have been extinct for almost 2 million years, but which these intrepid researchers think has survived into modern times and is currently eating people off the coast of South Africa.

The show featured news reports of the attacks, as well as found footage of a boat being rammed and sunk by a giant creature. All of which was fake.

Every single person on the show was an actor reciting scripted lines. Megalodon, sadly, remains dead.

Discovery's prank turned out to be some tasty chum in our social media ocean, causing a feeding frenzy on Twitter as outraged fans tore apart the cable giant's stunt in a 140 teeth or less.

Why are people so upset? Discovery has branded itself as a purveyor of scientific and historical programming. People watch to learn, and for the most part, we have. Now all we have learned is that Discovery's owners value publicity over the trust its viewers have given them for decades.

There is room for a "What if?" type of show about an extinct monster prowling the modern sea lanes. That home is the SyFy Channel.

Also perfect fodder for SyFy: Mermaids. Yet last year Animal Planet (sister channel to Discovery) broadcast a documentary called "Mermaids: The Body Found," which mixed real science, real life news footage with fictional scenarios and CGI to "prove" that mermaids are real.

The show was a well-executed and thoroughly entertaining display of hucksterism. And so thoroughly did it deceive the public that government agencies were forced (you can't make this up) to release public statements to the effect that mermaids aren't real.

Also not real: Aliens, so far as we know. And yet, the History Channel has been bludgeoning that extraterrestrial horse for years with its popular "Ancient Aliens" series.

It all points to a failure of nerve on the part of these educational programmers. They just don't have faith in their own material. Because the truth is, living sharks are every bit as fascinating as their extinct or fictional brethren, and our ancient monuments are all the more amazing for having been built by our ancestors, like the Egyptians who carved a glorious and golden civilization out of sand and rock. Real life is amazing.

Apparently not amazing enough for cable television.

Matt Patterson is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.

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