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).
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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