Guest Commentary

The Discovery Channel, once a haven for fine science/nature programming, has gone to hell

Almost everyone realizes television is shit. Some believe that it has always been shit, but I beg to differ. Who can deny the greatness of Lost in Space, Get Smart or Marcus Welby, M.D. ? OK, anybody. Absolutely anybody. But that's not the point. Back in the old days, we only had three channels along with a couple of locals, peopled primarily by doughy white men sporting bad hair pieces and leisure suits, yammering on about used cars.

Now we've got cable--hundreds of channels with around-the-clock programming. Some of us pay for yet more channels, so we can watch warmed-over "B" movies without commercials or, occasionally, inspired shows like The Sopranos. When cable first got going, I was thrilled. I thought the notion of a paying a subscriber fee to avoid being subjected every seven minutes to dopes flogging hemorrhoid cream would, quite simply, rock. And it did, for about 10 minutes. Now there are more commercials on cable than network TV, if that's possible.

Until recently, there was respite from the moronic electrons glaring from the box. It was called the Discovery Channel. Turn it on at almost any time, day or night, and you could find something interesting, whether it was astronomy, animal documentaries or natural history programs. I seem to remember a wonderful series about the world's oceans, marine mammals, deserts, environmental biology, physics and alternate cultures.

Here's the daily programming for the Discovery Channel now: evenings beginning at 6 and 7 p.m.: Monster Garage, American Chopper: Leno's Bike, American Chopper Viewer's Choice, American Chopper, American Chopper (reprise). That's Monday; Tuesday, it's The New Detectives: Hidden Obsessions, a show about the forensics of catching sex psychos, (as if there isn't enough of that with the CSI franchise), The Deadliest Job in the World (I actually watched this one once--it's about construction workers getting squashed by humongous pieces of metal), Biker Build Off and The New Detectives: Hidden Obsessions, again.

I could go on--Friday: American Chopper, American Hot Rod, American Chopper, American Hotrod. It's not that I've got anything against choppers and hot rods, but this is simply not educational programming. It's a testosterone-addled wankfest about as interesting as a trip to the junkyards of South Tucson.

So, what happened? When I was a kid, my dad told me two useful things (only two; he was not a wise man). One, professional wrestling is fake; two, chiropractors are quacks. These principles have generally stood me in good stead, but not this time. This time, I had to really scour the Internet the find the answer I needed, and guess what I found out? It all has to do with money. Is that a surprise, or what?

It seems that on July 12, 2004, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment and the Discovery Channel signed an exclusive deal for video distribution of Discovery Communications, Inc., programming in the United States and Canada, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In making the announcement, the executive vice president for North America said, among other things, that owing to TriStar's being a world-class leader in the industry, they are "uniquely positioned to maximize Discovery's diversified portfolio of content and deliver the highest quality home entertainment products to our consumers."

Columbia TriStar is a Sony Pictures company. For those of you who don't speak corporate-ese, this means, "we're going to produce as much high-volume dreck as Wal-Mart can sell."

What do you think is going to move faster: a series featuring a bunch of sweaty, swearing, white guys rebuilding a 1966 El Camino, or one about the plight of the southern African cheetah facing environmental degradation?

I'm a reader, but some evenings, my eyes are tired, or I'm just feeling a little lazy (not a crime the last time I looked). So the thing that saddens me most about the loss of Discovery isn't that I don't have access to the information anymore; it's that on those evenings when I don't feel like reading, I like being reminded of how plate tectonics work, or the physics inside a neutron star. I like to understand how a dolphin's sonar works.

Jay Leno's motorcycle is fine, I guess, but really--who gives a shit?

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