On Wednesday night, the Discovery Channel’s Expedition Unknown did an hour on Tiwanaku, which is in and of itself of no particular interest. But what was interesting is that Discovery and host Josh Gates seemed to be at odds over how to frame the story. The network’s promotions for the show, and even the show title, spoke of Tiwanaku as “Atlantis in the Andes,” referencing a midcentury fringe hypothesis that the Andean city was 10,000 years old and the capital of Atlantis. But the episode itself clearly labeled both this idea and the ancient astronaut theory as “conspiracy theories” and instead referred to the architectural remains now below Lake Titicaca’s waters as “an” Atlantis, meaning it in the figurative sense—underwater ruins. It was an odd juxtaposition between a factual presentation and a sensational marketing effort, and it probably says something about what Discovery thinks of its audience. Incidentally, Gates’s full-throated rejection of the ancient astronaut theory here on the Discovery Channel is quite the contrast from his Travel Channel days when he openly speculated about space aliens being responsible for Easter Island and other ancient sites. Discovery is very good about sequestering fringe content on specific channels dedicated to lunatic ideas. That’s why America Unearthed is coming to the Travel Channel and not the main Discovery Channel.
While Gates was taking swipes at competing series Ancient Aliens, which declared the Tiwanaku culture’s nearby site of Puma Punku the only architectural remains on Earth built by aliens, Ancient Aliens was busy making a deal to expand its cultural footprint.
Liquid Media Group signed a deal to operate A+E Networks’ Ancient Aliens video game. The game has been around for a year or two now, but I was dismayed to read that it has one million downloads on Android devices alone, with 2.5 million subscribers across its social media sites. Granted, many of those are likely to be double-counted if they follow the game on both Facebook and Twitter, but still, the numbers are surprisingly large.
That alone, however, isn’t enough to pique my interest. Instead, I was taken by what a Liquid Media executive had to say about being complicit in the promotion of an Ancient Aliens lifestyle brand:
“A+E has been on the forefront of translating story-rich intellectual property across media platforms, developing engaging content that is platform agnostic – all of which is central to Liquid’s strategy,” said Joshua Jackson, Chairman of Liquid Media. “Succeeding on major network television for over 13 seasons is a proud testament to the tremendous blood, sweat and tears that the teams at both A+E Networks and Prometheus Entertainment have invested to ensure Ancient Aliens is constantly evolving, both on television and across other mediums, to leverage its media franchise potential. A+E recognizes the convergence happening in the media, the value of being on the forefront of mobile and the significance of taking intellectual property across all platforms.”
Are there more chilling words than “Ancient Aliens” and “media franchise potential”?
What might that franchise potential include?
Well, A+E Networks trademarked the Ancient Aliens name for a number of products. These include a proposed series of Ancient Aliens novels featuring the show’s ancient astronaut theorists as protagonists, an Ancient Aliens magazine, children’s activity books, and an Ancient Aliens graphic novel. (This seems to be an omnibus application that ended up producing only a coloring book.) They also trademarked the name for commemorative dishes and ceramics, sculptures, and figurines. (This is probably for the coffee mugs the History.com store sells.) They locked it down for oven mitts and potholders—specifically, for some reason—and most recently a line of satchels, backpacks, and bags.
Fortunately, most of these potential products have never made it to market. Previous efforts to launch an Ancient Aliens clothing line also went bust. The show’s efforts to become a full lifestyle brand have stalled, it seems, since the market for tacky TV show souvenir merchandise isn’t all that strong.
But I do find it interesting that Liquid Media implies that the changes that we have seen in the show over its decade on the air have been part of a conscious strategy to broaden its appeal as a branded media experience rather than as a (pseudo-) documentary series about space aliens. As an all-purpose show about weird (pseudo-) science, it has broader appeal and more potential for tie-ins across a wider range of potential products. Looking at the quality of the products that the show has produced, as well as the awful aesthetics of its merchandise, and its near-total lack of significant online supplementary content, I shudder to think what damage Ancient Aliens might have done if someone competent had been managing it with an eye toward a serious multimedia strategy rather than a haphazard stumble into accidental audience interest.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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