I’ve had a bit of fun with America Unearthed’s $7,200 wardrobe budget for its pilot episode, mostly because series star Scott Wolter had a very minimal wardrobe. I do want to clarify, though, that the majority of this budget likely did not go to Wolter’s clothes but rather to the costumes used for the historical reenactments featured very briefly at the opening of each hour. I chose to have a bit of fun with the number mostly because the show calls great attention to its expensive production values, including dramatic cinematography and elaborate computer graphics packages.
But on a much more serious note, in comments on an earlier blog post, a television producer expressed concern that I had implied that America Unearthed and Committee Films, the company behind the show, were engaged in “nefarious” activity in accepting public financing in the form of production rebates.
I want to be on record as saying that Committee Films’ budget is not evil, nor nefarious, nor even unusual by television standards. As I said in my first posting on the issue, nothing in their request is illegal, nor is Minnesota Film and Television doing anything but following their policies, which do not discriminate based on content, except for porn.
Their expenses are relevant only because they requested that taxpayers reimburse them for some of the money spent. But even there, my concern is less for the taxpayers’ well-being than for the irony of asking for government money for the purpose of accusing the government of suppressing their work. Specifically, Committee Films asked for government money to reimburse them for episode one, which featured Wolter accusing the United States government of trying to stop production on the show by closing access to a Native American mound site in Georgia.
The actual money that goes into television production is largely kept an industry secret, and almost nothing is officially known about most programs’ budgets. The reason that I posted the program’s budget documents is twofold: First, the documents are public record, and taxpayers have a right to know how their money is spent. More importantly, I feel that it’s important to see the big money that goes into making programs like this to understand the heavy financial incentive the producers and stars of such shows have for telling untruths for profit. There is big money involved at every level, from the network to the producers to the talent, and many people are making cash hand over fist telling the public things that are demonstrably untrue.
And that’s where I did find a bit of nefariousness in America Unearthed and its financial documents. The producers asserted that the show began production of the pilot on June 26, 2012, after the scenes explicitly stated to have been shot for later episodes on June 20, 2012 (the summer solstice) were already complete. I don’t really care how or whether this affects their reimbursement, but it gets to an important point: The show is fundamentally dishonest in its presentation of the events it purports to depict and this is troubling for a show that claims to be presenting “truth.”
America Unearthed plays fast and loose with the order of events depicted:
As I said, most nonfiction series are guilty of some of these sins from time to time, but very few documentaries are as blatantly manipulative as America Unearthed. And I think the reason for that is that America Unearthed isn’t the documentary series it claims to be. It’s a reality show, like Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The program’s manipulation of events and the timeline is exactly like the heavy-handed editing and blatant falsification of reality television, appropriate for an entertainment program, but not one that claims to be a truthful documentary.
America Unearthed is not really the story of the sites it explores but rather is increasingly a reality show about its hero, Scott Wolter, and his noble fight against a vast, dark academic-government conspiracy out to stop him from uncovering the “truth.” The producers clearly see the show as a conspiracy thriller, a globetrotting reality procedural in which each episode’s “investigation” is a piece in a master narrative, a weekly installment hung upon an overarching story of the anti-Wolter conspiracy that is meant to keep viewers coming back week after week. The increasingly frequent callbacks to earlier episodes confirm this intention to serialize the narrative. In its crude way, it is something of a masterstroke, investing a disconnected, episodic series with a serial narrative.
But it doesn’t change the truth that America Unearthed is a reality show, not a documentary series, and facts are shortchanged in service to storytelling with little use for honesty or truth. The small but significant lies done in service of entertainment call into question the honesty of the entire enterprise: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10).
2/11/2013 05:58:59 am
I've been thinking the same thing. It has the feel of a reality show - that feeling of being led by the nose through a labyrinth of contrived mystery and tension, then left with no real sense of closure.
2/11/2013 04:10:23 pm
I love your idea for a reality show. Unfortunately, the elimination format you described id better for Jason than for Wolter or any of the other alternative history people. The way they work is to start with a couple of unlikely theories and add a few more each week, regardless of whether they contradict each other or not.
2/11/2013 12:24:09 pm
If you hate the show so much, why do you keep watching? I think you are trying to make a name for yourself by criticizing this show. It's a TV show, not a doctoral thesis. It's interesting and entertaining and the show's host is totally hot. What more do you want on a Friday night?
2/11/2013 12:39:11 pm
Truth might be nice. I do expect documentaries to be true.
2/11/2013 01:05:26 pm
I like to think of it as - you watch it so the rest of us don't have to!
5/4/2013 06:01:07 pm
Truth.... huh. And yet you still use "best selling author" to describe yourself on your blog. Funny. One person made that comment on another blog post, I am just reminding you.... because while you hammer the show for misleading the public, you will still mislead about your actual book selling prowess.
2/11/2013 03:46:48 pm
One could easily ask why you read and reply to this blog if you in turn hate it so much. By the logic of Wolter's defenders on this site, you must be chiming in because you're jealous of the blog and want to make a name for yourself.
2/12/2013 05:24:04 am
Can you cite specific examples(show#, website) where either H2 or Wolter states this show is a documentary?
2/12/2013 05:28:29 am
The program classifies itself as "History", not "Reality" or "Entertainment," so there is a presumption of truth. Documentaries aren't strictly defined (nor is the reality genre). You're even more cynical than I if you think that we should simply assume that programs that claim to present truth are fake.
2/12/2013 07:24:52 am
I, like a few other contributors, work in the film industry. While I can appreciate a good scathing review, I do think you've taken this a bit too far. You asked in another post if you were obsessed and I think the evidence points to "absolutely yes". Viewers who don't like a show, simply stop watching, or write bad reviews and let it go, but you've put out post after post after post about this show. I respectfully recommend getting some distance from this and moving on. It's not worth your time.
2/12/2013 07:44:40 am
The Onion's A.V. Club puts out episode-by-episode reviews of TV series, including several that the critics acitvely dislike. Should they "let it go"? I review each episode of series like America Unearthed and Ancient Aliens (yes, check the blog: I write about it weekly, too) because these programs are actively misinforming the public and nobody else is bothering to call them on it.
2/12/2013 04:13:15 pm
Your built-in end date will be short lived; only a fool would wager against it receiving a season two green light. I think the only uncertainty is whether it will remain on H2 or get bumped up to the History Channel... although SyFy would be a better fit.
2/12/2013 09:37:00 pm
It already did, but it will be a few months before the next season airs.
2/12/2013 02:01:27 pm
In all creations meant for public consumption the producers of such knowingly open themselves up to critique. Television programs are not absolved of this. Each program sets the standard by which it will be judged and in this case its creators have set the standard too high. It is true that this show should not be taken seriously. The shows claims are ridiculous and easily disprovable, its host is unstable and his methodology can’t pass even as rudimentary. That being said it is being taken seriously and at face value by a number of people because it is being presented as both “hard science” and “history” neither of which is true. At the same time the shows host actively maligns people in multiple academic fields, who have spent years if not decades seeking new knowledge, as being obtuse at best or, most often, greedy conspirators hell-bent on keeping “the truth” from the public. This is simply petty, spiteful and vindictive and the host should be ashamed.
2/12/2013 08:26:00 am
Why should a series of assertions from History.com not have a series of rebuttals? Josh M. is asking Jason, and I presume the rest of us, to overlook the emperor's nakedness. I don't think so.
2/12/2013 04:40:19 pm
I wonder if George Lucas and Steven Spielberg get any royalties or kick-backs whenever an alt 'historian'/'archeologist' claims to be a "real-life Indiana Jones". Also, wouldn't you need to be an archeologist, associate dean, and college professor with a PhD in order to make that claim? After all, Indy did much more than run around the world battling Nazis and stealing priceless artifacts in order to remove them from their country of origin so that they could be displayed in American museums (the artifacts, that is - I don't believe he ever brought Nazis to a museum for exhibition).
2/12/2013 03:46:47 pm
Unfortunately when pointing out that a show that claims academia is hiding something is loaded with BS, you're tapping into a primal anti-intellectualism and paranoia America soaks in.
2/15/2013 07:47:50 am
Jason states: "if you saw the number of people searching for information about each episode in the 48 hours after it airs, you'd realize, too, how important it is to discuss these issues"
2/15/2013 08:14:54 am
Seriously? You think I hide the fact that I write to serve the audience, or that I design the material on my site to meet the audience's expectations and needs? Check my blog archive. You'll see I frequently explain exactly why I write, what pulls in traffic, and how I use that to serve what I hope are beneficial purposes. I try to be perfectly transparent about what I do.
2/15/2013 08:36:59 am
In the name of full transparency, why not post your Amazon sales data for your books? You claim to be a "best selling" author. This claim comes with an asterisk and if one bothers to read the asterisk it notes, "* Amazon.com ranking of top 10 best-selling archaeology new releases, December 2012."
2/15/2013 08:42:50 am
I responded to this when you posted it on another blog entry of mine. It's just marketing puffery, and I've always been quite plain about that. As I've said many times, my blog readership outdraws my book sales many times over and has become the tail that wags the dog. Heaven help me for citing Wikipedia, but it notes that "bestseller" is a term of puffery and refers to relative not absolute sales, referring only to the "highest-selling titles in the category over the stated period," which I even included in the footnote I gave to the claim. If I were hiding something, I wouldn't bother telling you the sales period or the category!
2/15/2013 09:22:07 am
Wow, speak of the devil! The Truth Revealed indeed!
2/15/2013 11:02:07 am
Somebody sounds a little butthurt. So who are you really?
2/15/2013 01:08:38 pm
Three things seem clear to me:
2/24/2014 04:19:57 pm
So looking at all of this. You never said how many books you ever sold to get that best-selling book. How many did you truly sell?
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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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