Art by Brooke Muschott
I don’t always watch television, but when I do it’s usually something no longer on the air. At the risk of sounding culturally irrelevant, I question the direction in which our television programming is heading. When I was younger, I remember watching the Discovery Channel and seeing everything from nature documentaries to crime shows and behind-the-scenes looks at everything imaginable. If I turn on that same channel today, I am greeted mostly by reality television shows detailing the escapades of Alaskan crab fishermen, Hot Rod enthusiasts and people buying and selling houses. There is nothing wrong with these shows per se, but how did they come to displace educational and informative programming that was once the entire point of the channel?
When we were all growing up, it was extremely easy to distinguish what sort of programming to expect on a given channel: MTV offered music videos, the Discovery Channel, History Channel, or National Geographic offered various sorts of educational programming, and major networks showed programming that ran the gamut from sitcoms to investigative journalism. In short, it was easy for a viewer to choose what sort of program they wanted to see and flip to an appropriate channel.
In spite of how things once were, in a process known as “channel drift,” many channels have abandoned their original purpose in favor of banal reality television programming in an attempt to draw more viewers and produce higher ratings. Instead of shows which inform our deeper curiosities about the world and inform us of our place in it, we are now bombarded by the modern version of a grotesquerie or a freak show, entertaining ourselves with the misfortune and exploitation of others. This has important consequences for our society when you examine the dismal state of our education system and declining job forecasts. Quite simply, the United States is falling behind, and I believe at least part of that can be attributed to the way we watch television.
Last May, when Animal Planet aired a “documentary” claiming to prove the existence of mermaids, social media blew up with the reactions of many viewers who believed that what they had just watched was genuine scientific discovery when in fact it was just an elaborate hoax using actors and CGI to pass it off as reality as a result of its association with a reputable outlet of educational programming. Even the History Channel — which my brother and I used to jokingly call the World War II Channel — has lost a lot of its value when historical documentaries began to be replaced by pseudo-historical and pseudo-scientific programming such as Ancient Aliens or the Nostradamus Effect, which center around conspiracy theories and fantastical claims.
A&E Network — which recently came under fire for suspending Phil Robertson from the hit reality television program “Duck Dynasty” — is perhaps one of the worst offenders when it comes to producing questionable content. What was once branded as the Arts & Entertainment Network has abandoned its core message to produce low-budget reality shows in pursuit of higher ratings. Our society has become so obsessed with watching the lives of other people that we have created a class who aren’t able to live their everyday lives without having everything broadcast to an audience of millions.
In addition to the declining quality of content in television programming, the structure of television shows has affected our attention spans, which now only need to allow us to concentrate until the next commercial break. We are hardly ever expected to pay attention to a given program for longer than 30 minutes or an hour maximum before we can do something else. Even the prevalence of 24-hour news networks makes it difficult for people to be truly informed about the world as highly nuanced issues are reduced to soundbites. In the classroom, professors have had to change the structure of lectures to accommodate these changes as we periodically must be reengaged throughout the lecture.
This is not to bemoan all television programming, as there are still many excellent examples out there with relateable characters, complex story lines, and broad popular appeal, but it is a warning to look at what you watch and think about what sort of world tomorrow is going to be as a result.
Follow Patrick Rear on Twitter: @pgrear92