PP mentioned the other day what a friend told him in school. Apparently, his friend watched a “ ocumentary" on TV about mermaids. "They found a skeleton," he hold me with wide eyed astonishment. "Mermaids are real! Or at least they used to be. Maybe they're extinct.” This puts me in a tough place as a parent. I don’t want to squash is youthful enthusiasm by being the “well actually” Dad. I know I believed in plenty of things as a kid that I then grew up and realized were fictions. At the same time, this isn’t him reading a whimsical fiction book and mistaking it for reality, like I did with the beautifully written and illustrated Gnomes by Wil Huygen. Instead this is a case of a channel that otherwise pretends to be a dealer in facts, deciding to lie. If anyone believes it, they can just shrug and wink and make a off handed comment about people who “don’t get the joke.” In some ways, I’d rather deal with the little man being exposed to something he’s not ready for, than have to undo falsehoods that have the weight of a “documentary” behind them.
Now I get news, via southerfriedscience, of another "documentary," being put out by the discovery channel. They cover their lying butts with a vaguely worded disclaimer, flashed up on the screen in the beginning that doesn't actually admit that they made the whole story up. In fact they end it with "but we believe Submarine exists.”
"Submarine" is apparently the name given to this beast that everyone in the know know's is a hoax. In other words they lie. Then compound the lies by stringing together a bunch unrelated real research and actual, tragic, events to add the illusion of credibility to a beast that never actually existed, and they know it never actually existed. The fact that the events might be separated by 100's of kilometers and years in time in not just glossed over, it’s actively hidden.
Here's my thing. If you want to make a fake-u-mentary for "entertainment purposes," that's fine, but be honest that it's for entertainment purposes. We were never expected to believe that Spinal Tap was a real band. And before the producers at the Discovery channel put on a smarmy smile, roll their eyes, and point to a screen cap of their disclaimer-that-isn't-really-a-disclaimer, I'd like to remind them that not all of the people who watch that show can read. Even if they can, they might not be fast enough to parse your "it's not our fault if you don't realize you're being lied to" flash card, or they might have been looking away for the second of screen time.
I can remember losing several weekends to this amazing new cable channel when Discovery showed up on channel 15 oh so long ago. It was a network of science and nature shows like no other, and while it wasn't going to compete with the Cosby Show for ratings, I knew I could watch and learn and be entertained. In fact, it was clearly aimed at people like me; people who find learning stuff entertaining by itself.
It's not that network anymore. The only even vaguely educational show is Mythbusters, which our whole family loves. Unfortunately, I find myself feeling increasing guilty because by consuming it, I'm implicitly condoning the lying pack of lairs that is the network that hosts it.
The show has had a good run. I can’t help but feel as thought the recent announcement that Kari, Grant, and Tory would be leaving the show is something akin to a jump-the-shark moment. The show still has good ratings, and an avid fan base, but it’s not what it was at it’s peak, so the producers can’t help but start tweaking in what always proves to be counterproductive ways. Whether that's really what's happening, I don't know, but from the front of the screen, the reasons hardly matter.
Here's my plea. We need some millionaire who's interested in young people being inspired to actually learn real things about the world. We need him or her to show up at the PBS offices with a big fat check and say something like:
"Here's the deal. You take this money, buy out whatever contracts with Discovery you have to, and move as many of the Mythbusters talent you can get a PBS show. If you have to name it something different, that's fine, just give them free reign, and a good budget and you’ll do fine. If it has to be about other stuff than busting myths, that's fine. Discovery doesn't have the copyright on people building stuff and testing stuff in a light, entertaining, and educational way. Just get them away from those the drama-fab that is that other network."
You hear me Elon? You're still going to need new engineers in 20 years. Better start inspiring them now.