The “vast wasteland” becomes ever more vast

February 26, 2014

When a snake-handling Kentucky pastor died last week after being bitten by one of his serpents, our eyebrows shot skyward not due to the circumstances of his death – if you handle snakes long enough, it stands to reason that your luck will eventually expire – but that this gentleman was the star of a reality television series on the National Geographic Channel.

Yes, the National Geographic Channel. The cable network that uses the name of one of the world’s longest-running and most prestigious magazines, which has enlightened generations about the wonders of nature and far-flung locales from Tanzania to Tasmania, which has set the standard for magazine photography, which has been a model of high-mindedness, has lent its moniker to a cable network with a reality series about snake handlers.

And this is hardly an aberration on the National Geographic schedule. A quick glance at its offerings the other day found reality series about prison guards, an episode of a series “Wild Justice” that was called “Boozin’ and Snoozin,’” and another series on state troopers who, according to the channel’s website, “must employ their best means of defense when culprits come out onto the Alaskan streets armed with knives, guns and even rocks.”

The National Geographic Channel is, unfortunately, far from the only cable channel to be launched under a prestigious imprimatur, or with the loftiest of intentions, only to slide into the muck and the mire of “the vast wasteland.” The Learning Channel, once pegged as a commercial, for-profit competitor to public television, is now merely TLC and the home of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” The Arts and Entertainment Network has similarly shortened its moniker to just A&E. It once aired Leonard Bernstein’s interpretation of the German opera “Fidelio,” but has since completely abandoned the arts for a monumental, mindless dose of entertainment, with slabs of reality TV and blocks of reruns. The same goes for Bravo. Even the History Channel – which now dubs itself merely History – was once a place where you could theoretically watch documentaries on slavery, the Great Depression or World War I. No more. Much of its current fare is pseudoscientific drivel along the lines of “Ancient Aliens” and “The Nostradamus Effect.” You’re more likely to bump into Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush on the street than you are to find them on the channel’s schedule.

While it hasn’t yet aired a fantasy that has George Washington shaking hands with an extraterrestrial, public television has also been engaged in a vigorous chase for the lowest common denominator. Though markedly better than its commercial counterparts, it still has aired too many infomercials masquerading as programming with book or DVD tie-ins, particularly when they are rattling the tin cup during fundraising drives.

If given the choice, few of us would willingly return to the days when there were only three or four channels to choose from and you had to adjust your antenna in order to slice through the snow on the screen. And it’s not as if there isn’t quality programming hiding away in nooks and crannies, from “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” to the news operations of the BBC and Al Jazeera. But it’s dispiriting to see so many outlets that were inaugurated with noble intentions and idealistic objectives reduced to peddling the same “wasteland” fodder as every other channel on the spectrum. It doesn’t say much about the corporate proprietors of these enterprises, and it also doesn’t speak well for us, the audience.

We need more symphonies and fewer snake handlers.



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