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No More Stunts and Monsters For the Discovery Channel

Rich Ross’ comments show that the backlash against misleading, sensationalistic science TV has finally been heard.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London vis Wikimedia commomns

Rick and Rich Ross, no known relation

You can’t imagine how intrigued I was this morning to read that rapper Rick Ross was fed up with all these mermaids and guys getting eaten by snakes. “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “well, he’s from Florida, where all those snakes and mermaids must get pretty tiresome, so I guess this makes sense…” Half a cup of coffee later, I realized I had, in fact, been reading about Rich Ross, the new president of the Discovery Channel, who spoke as part of a Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena on Thursday. Though hired in October, Rich Ross just assumed his new professional post, and speaking to reporters yesterday, he confirmed that he would not continue the parade of controversial, highly criticized programs that Discovery (along with its sister channel, Animal Planet), has aired over the last few years.

Not even touching on semi-exploitative narishkeit like Amish Mafia, Discovery’s shows have often become increasingly sensationalistic and bizarre, especially for an organization that lays claim to some kind of educational agenda. In May 2013, for example, a series of fake documentaries that supposed the real existence of mermaids confused a lot of viewersWired referred to these shows as “the rotting carcass of science television.” Another pair of hit “documentaries” about the megalodon, (an extinct prehistoric shark), implied that scientists covered up the fact that these giant predators were still out there, terrorizing the seas.

This anaconda didn't wan't none

And most recently, Discovery ticked off just about everyone from TV critics to animal welfare experts to their own viewers by producing Eaten Alive, in which naturalist hotdog Paul Rosolie was supposed to be swallowed alive by a giant anaconda while wearing a “crush-proof” suit. But after harassing some uninterested snake into finally having a go at him, Rosolie’s suit began to give way and the host tapped out, fearing his arms would be broken. The snake was apparently not harmed, but Rosolie’s and the Discovery Channel’s reputations certainly were. Lisa Powers, a snake conservationist, wrote, “I guess if there’s one thing to take away from this: the special does give us further insight into the behavior, ethics and stupidity of Homo sapiens.”

Asked if he was a fan of Discovery airing “fake” programs, Ross replied: “It’s not whether I’m a fan of it, I don’t think it’s right for Discovery Channel, and think it’s something that has run its course.” Later, he claimed that the Eaten Alive debacle was not a lesson lost on him. “I don’t believe you’ll see a person being eaten by a snake in my time—I can’t over-promise that, but that’s how I feel today,” said Ross.

Discovery is not alone in these types of criticism; other television networks, like the History Channel, that began with educational or factual premises have also devolved into a sad mess of pseudo-scripted reality shows, superstitious nonsense, and of course, an endless parade of topics like “Hitler’s secret moon pyramids,” and “the alien origins of the Loch Ness monster.” But Ross says he wants to move away from these types of shows, in favor of more “authentic” documentary and educational fare that could be relatable to a wider, more diverse audience. Referencing the “X-TREME!!!!” style and presentation of many of the network’s current offerings, Ross stated that at this time the Discovery brand’s target audience is too limited. “The channel is more narrowly niche that it needs to be,” Ross said. “Being more inclusive to women and younger men is a way for us to build back the audience. We want to be the number one TV brand not just for men but for the whole family.”

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