Sometimes I wonder what happened to the promise of cable television. Once upon a time, opponents of PBS argued that public broadcasting was no longer needed because cable TV offered the same type of educational, informative programming under private auspices. But today the Discovery Channel runs documentaries on “real” exorcisms, the Biography Channel devotes its time to “true” ghost stories, and even the National Geographic Channel tells its viewers that Atlantis has been found, perfectly preserved, in Spain. Worst of all is, of course, History (formerly the History Channel), with its stable of “documentaries” on the coming apocalypse, UFO sightings, and, worst of all, Ancient Aliens. If this represents the privatization of education, America is doomed.
Fifteen years ago, when cable networks were still developing their own programming, there was a brief moment when it seemed that they might provide a home for fact-based programming. Discovery, for example, was so successful with its science-based programming that it acquire or launched several subsidiary channels for ancillary documentaries, including The Learning Channel (now the TLC of Toddlers and Tiaras and Hoarding: Buried Alive fame) and Animal Planet (now known for Haunted and Confessions: Animal Hoarding). The Arts & Entertainment Network (now the A&E of Dog the Bounty Hunter and Hoarders--notice a pattern?) developed such a strong lineup of documentaries that it spun off the History Channel to offer still more.
But even this moment of potential was illusory. It existed mostly because the young cable channels had little original programming and filled their lineups with off-network reruns, cheap quickie documentaries produced by the major networks’ news divisions, and programs purchased from international public broadcasters like the BBC and ZDF. The major broadcast networks’ news divisions courted no controversy and stuck to facts, and international public broadcasters followed their governments’ mandates for more-or-less fair and balanced presentations of material. Such content gave the impression that cable would be a home for learning, when in reality such content served as a façade concealing the tabloid monster about to burst forth.
This is not to say that network television was a wonderland of learning, but for the most part until the 1990s the networks tended to attempt—if not actually achieve—basic fairness in their programs and a respect for the general idea of truth. Of course, NBC broadcasted the notorious In Search of Ancient Astronauts in 1973 (spawning the syndicated In Search Of…) and several god-awful documentaries in the 1990s advocating for creationism and lost civilizations. ABC revived Chariots of the Gods for an anniversary celebration. And let us not get started on Fox’s near-endless 1990s parade of freak show “documentaries” on aliens and Bigfoot and other stupidities. But for the most part, these were aberrations set against more worthwhile programs. Can anyone today imagine a major broadcast network devoting part of prime time to science or history today?
The original programming the cable networks produced in the 1990s should have been an indication of what was coming. Like their network counterparts, they more or less stopped producing real documentaries on science, archaeology, and history. A&E gradually moved from stolid programs like Time Machine to more sensational fare like The Unexplained and Ancient Mysteries—programs that crossed over to the History Channel and the Biography Channel and formed part of their DNA. Discovery had more than its share of exorcisms, and TLC, in one of its last major acts of “learning” before becoming a lifestyle network, joined Graham Hancock’s Quest for the Lost Civilization.
The problem seems to be the economics of mass communication. From the advent of television down to the early 1990s, most people had very limited TV options—the broadcast networks and perhaps an independent UHF station or two, then later a few general interest cable channels. To make money, these entities needed to appeal the broadest possible audiences. This meant, generally, avoiding advocating fringe beliefs because a regular series (as opposed to a one-off special) on something like ancient aliens simply could not attract the type of audience needed to sustain the economic model.
By contrast, in today’s fragmented television environment that type of fringe belief makes for a perfect series concept because it will draw a consistent audience of that fragment of the population interested in that fringe idea. Thus, in 1952 NBC could broadcast a weekly documentary series on World War II, Victory at Sea, and expect to have more than a third of all television viewers tune in. Today, Ancient Aliens attracts two million viewers, which sounds like a lot but represents just 0.64% of the US population. Because two million viewers is a tremendous success for a cheap basic cable show (and even for the CW broadcast network, at least on Fridays), fringe programming thrives because it can deliver this small but loyal audience to a given channel at a given time, something advertisers desire.
In this respect, a show about exorcism or aliens is no different than one about Swedish cooking, international prisons, the manufacture of wedding cakes, or any other special interest—except that televised programs about fake science and supernatural lies run the very real risk of persuading people that false claims are true.
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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