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Science TV “network decay”

by Donald Prothero, Jan 25 2012

It happens with disgusting regularity. You will flip through the various basic cable channels which are nominally “science oriented” (often grouped together on the dial if they feature scientific topics) and come up with nothing but junk, pseudoscience, and worse. “Reality shows” about subjects with little or no science content, tons of paranormal and pseudoscientific shows promoting ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and creationism—all fill the airwaves for channels like Discovery, The  Learning Channel, History Channel, and even the Science Channel and National Geographic Channel. We watch a few minutes of these with complaints to anyone within earshot, then (usually) move on—or occasionally we get sucked in to watch the whole thing, like gawkers at a car crash. The cartoon at the top (from the great website PhdComics) says it all: four channels that used to be largely documentaries on science and history are now dominated  by guns, explosions, dangerous occupations and other “reality” TV. Their shows have  buzz words in the titles like “biggest”, “wildest”, “monsters” or “killers”, and plain old junk fill up most of their air time.

I’ve seen it from both sides. I’ve appeared in prehistoric animal documentaries that have aired on all four channels (and keep re-appearing years after I made them, so I feel like Dorian Gray, with my younger self perpetually preserved in documentary limbo). Almost all these documentaries are made by small independent film outfits that are searching for any sexy topic that they can sell to the major cable networks, so they are under great pressure to come up with something flashy, noisy, scary, and/or mysterious. If I  have any chance to review the script, I try my best to tone down the excessive hyperbole, but they usually ignore me. As I film segments with them, I try to be as dynamic and entertaining as a “talking head” can be, but they are always pushing me to oversimplify and exaggerate to make the spiel more colorful (but less scientifically accurate). And then when I see the final product, most of what I did ends up on the cutting room floor, with only a few seconds left of many hours of filming. Even worse, I’ve put in many  hours on projects that never got picked up at all. Documentary filmmaking is a high-risk, low-reward proposition—you have better odds of making big money in Vegas.

So we all complain about the changes in our basic cable channels, and wonder why such dreck can make it on the air, but seldom think hard about the process. But the excellent website TVTropes does a very nice job analyzing what happens to TV networks over time. To no one’s surprise, it comes down to one simple factor: ratings (and therefore money from advertisers), largely driven by the effort to woo those big-spending trend-setting 18-31 male viewers who already dictate the movie industry’s bottom line (although movies aim even lower to reach teenage boys, the biggest-spending and most loyal movie audience). As TVTropes points out (and those of us old enough to remember can attest to), it wasn’t always this bad on cable TV. When the laws changed and the opportunity to create hundreds of basic cable channels first emerged in the 1980s, the channels were initially set up to fill specific programming niches, from the Golf Channel to the Game Show Network and so on. In the early 1980s, all these new niche-driven cable channels were very distinct and more or less true to their niche description. But since these are commercial channels that must sell ads based on numbers of viewers, the same factors that affect every other commercial enterprise came into play: keep tweaking it and give the customer whatever sells the most. (This dynamic does not apply to non-commercial stations like PBS in the U.S., or the BBC in Britain, which can program what they feel is in the public interest).

As TVTropes documents, nearly all these niche-defined networks have undergone “network decay” since they were founded in the 1980s, as their programming shifts to find hit shows. Because they are nearly all chasing nearly the same demographic of 18-31 year old males, they end up programming a lot of the same kinds of things (or even the same shows). Their original mission and distinctive programming is lost in a sea of reality shows and junk that keeps you in your seat, whether it be explosions or dangerous occupations or whatever. Another factor has been the expansion of media conglomerates, so that these multiple cable channels are owned by just a few corporations, and the CEO of each channel must answer to corporate bosses who are only interested in their profitability, not any abstract “mission” to air certain types of programming. So much for the high-minded idealism that drove the deregulation of the airwaves in the 1970s and 1980s, with the intent of offering us dozens of distinct choices. Instead, they all “decay” to a lowest-common-denominator of “if it bleeds, it leads” bottom-line mentality, negating whatever real advantages that dozens of distinctive niche cable channels once offered. As TVTropes points out, the decisions are made by network execs worried only about their ratings and bottom lines, not any high-minded ideal like “quality television” that PBS brags so loudly about. They could (and did) notice that professional “wrestling” is popular with their 18-31 male demographic, and see no problem with programming the WWE next to a show about science.

TVTropes offers as a classic example the pioneering channel MTV, which single-handedly changed the music business in the early 1980s and made telegenic pop artists into big stars (e.g., Michael Jackson, Madonna) while ending the careers of less telegenic musicians (e.g., Christopher Cross). But soon MTV found it was more profitable to offer reality shows, cartoons, game shows, and many other kinds of programming until the original music videos that it pioneered have vanished altogether.  TVTropes analyzed the decay of the cable channels in various categories. Under “Total Abandonment” (of their original mission) they list not only MTV, A&E, G4, CMT, Biography, and The Learning Channel (TLC). In their words:

TLC, originally focusing around science and nature documentaries in the style of the Discovery Channel, drifted toward almost nothing but “home makeover”-style reality shows. In a somewhat confusing (in these days of internet porn) play at grabbing the all-important 18-30 male demographic, TLC acquired the rights to air the Miss America pageant. After sufficient decay, one would never guess that TLC used to be called The Learning Channel and was once co-owned by NASA.

One need only check here to see how far TLC has drifted away from “learning” and into the realm of bizarre sensationalism, or this hilarious send-up of their programming.

Under the category “Slipped”, we find The History Channel. As TVTrope comments:

[Their] programming now consists of roughneck-focused reality shows (Ice Road Truckers, Ax Men) and conspiracy theory “documentaries” about UFOs, the Bible Code, ghosts, Atlantis, Nostradamus, and the end of the world, earning the network the derisive nickname “The Hysterical Channel”. Heck, at least the “Hitler Channel,” as they used to be known (back when everything was about either World War II, Nazis or The American Civil War), was actual history.

Their analysis of Discovery Channel is even more hilarious:

The Discovery Channel still shows plenty of actual documentary material, despite having been decaying for almost as long as MTV has. In the late 80s the lineup was mostly serious documentaries, the most famous of which was Wings (no relation to the sitcom except for a focus on aircraft) but which also included classy repackaged BBC imports like Making of a Continent — and once a year there was Shark Week, which was just what you’d expect. By the mid-1990s, they showed an obscene amount of home improvement shows and cooking shows aimed at stay-at-home moms (enough to spawn the spin-off Discovery Home & Leisure Channel, now Planet Green) and Wings had proven so popular it had been farmed out to its own spin-off, Discovery Wings Channel (now Military Channel). Now, they’re being swamped with “guys building and/or blowing things up” shows in the vein of Mythbusters and Monster Garage. And about four different shows about credulous idiots with no critical thinking skills ghost hunters. In 2005, Discovery debuted Cash Cab, a game show that takes place in the back of a cab, leaving one unsure whether it even has a theme beyond “non-fiction”. It gets weird when you realize that they’re knocking some of their own shows off, especially Mythbusters into Smash Lab (with a focus on safety measures) and How It’s Made into Some Assembly Required. The latter has almost only done products featured in the former (though How It’s Made has been on for just about ten years, so it’s hard to find something they haven’t done). The Discovery Channel also used to contain a lot of nature, which is where the now-classic Shark Week (which they still air regularly) originated from. But it seems that explosions have taken the place of tigers ripping stuff to pieces. Most of the nature shows have since been relegated to Animal Planet.

Finally, the Science Channel and National Geographic Channel are the only two that still run mostly science documentaries with little junk, yet National Geographic still has “The Bounty Hunter,” “Is it Real?”, and “The Dog Whisperer.”  Science Channel has begun airing sci-fi programming, including “Firefly” and “Dark Matters: Twisted but True,” so they are running pop-pseudoscience garbage that now pollutes The History Channel.

Frankly, I don’t see any light at the end of this tunnel. As long as these are commercial TV channels, they are driven by ratings and lowest-common-denominator programming aimed at 18-31 men. Only PBS and other non-commercial stations can escape this “network decay”—but then they compensate by annoying pledge drives that rerun old shows with sentimental value so that viewers will tune in and hopefully donate. Maybe the BBC, with its government support of top-quality science and drama programming (which the U.S. market then borrows or rips off) seems immune, although there are BBC channels that are lowbr0w as well. After all, Benny Hill reruns have done well on American TV for years….

94 Responses to “Science TV “network decay””

  1. gski says:

    This is why I canceled cable two years ago.

  2. Tom says:

    This reminds me of something Homer Simpson said, “Ah, the Luftwaffe. The Washington Generals of the History Channel.”

    Of course, that was the OLD History Channel. Completely agree about how depressing the programming is.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      It’s sort of sad that History is no longer The Hitler Channel. I suppose “Hitler & the Occult” is keeping the spirit alive.

  3. Retired Prof says:

    You sound as if you think the course of development you describe is a bad thing. This simply cannot be so, because it results from the operation of a free market.

    According to the credo revealed to Adam Smith and preached by libertarians, by promoting their own interests producers of the TV shows you describe “promote[] that of the society more effectually than when [they] really intend[] to promote it.”

    Adam Smith is the one great thinker whose ideas can be taken on faith. In regard to him a skeptical approach is heresy.

    • Ben says:

      Assuming that a free market is always a good thing, which it isn’t necessarily.
      Also the idea of liberatarianism is a nice one, but doesn’t work in real life, kind of like communism.

    • Ben says:

      A skeptical approach is NEVER heresy.

    • Alan says:

      So the enlightened (defined-as-non-free-market) thing to do would be to force people to watch what they do not want? Or at least have the state take over the channels, and if they do not like it they can stop watching? Businesses give customers what they want, and the majority viewers may be quite content with this junk programming. However, if the majority became more interested in legitimate science, the market would change. I sincerely hope this happens, but I am not willing to coerce people. In the meantime, there is hope that the internet will provide the niche for us. I mean, we are all reading this blog, aren’t we?

      • Donald Prothero says:

        There are many who think the airwaves are a limited resource that shouldn’t just be allowed to deteriorate into a free-for-all of junk, but is a resource that should be conserved and rationed and (dare I say it?) used for the public good. This is the rationale behind supporting Public Radio and Public TV. In an unregulated world, we allow the media to spew any junk they want and watch our citizenry become dumber and dumber. But a case can be made that a limited resource like the broadcast media should have at least SOME of its content reserved for material which enlightens and educates, just as a public service.
        Yes, those of us with better educations already go to niche websites for our content, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to have at least a few oases of quality content on the airwaves as well to allow people to find educational materials and possibly become more literate?

      • Alan says:

        I see your point about the airwaves as a limited resource, and yes it sure feels like we are sliding into idiocracy, but I worry that the power to dictate TV content, once established, could just as easily be co-opted by factions hostile to science (e.g. what would Rick Santorum do with it?).

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Just look at PBS–it’s long been independent and often critical of the government, and I don’t recall much censorship. It’s not a “state-run government propaganda station” just a station protected from the pressures of selling out to the masses and programming what most people regard as “quality TV”

  4. Janet Camp says:

    Why does anyone have cable, let alone PAY FOR IT? For that matter, why does anyone have a TV? I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I can entirely escape it, and I do check in now and then just to keep up. I watch some PBS online and find some of it worthwhile.

    However, PBS is most certainly experiencing the same decay–just a little less blatantly. Most of its science programming has become very visually whiz bang with limited content stretched into hour long programs consisting of much repetition. They also endlessly rerun stuff including the regrettable British import “Secrets of the Dead”. Not as bad as cable, but often some very skeptical science. Local stations choose their own programming and it isn’t all produced by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Many local stations run endless pseudoscience self-help guru programs and even outright woo-woo alt med crap–all in the name of drawing in new pledges. If you complain you only get the false equivalency argument that “viewers can make up their own minds” and that all “views” deserve to be represented.

    PBS has been forced into ever-increasing their “public-private partnership” and the result mimics what you describe in the cable realm. It’s a lot like “integrative” medicine creeping into even well known medical centers.

  5. tmac57 says:

    I don’t know why the Discovery network just doesn’t sort out all of the various types of shows into their respective categories,and put them on their own channel.Then you could have a legitimate science channel,history channel,and also a junk channel,murder channel,hard jobs channel,geek (the circus kind)channel,gun channel,attacking animals channel,woo channel etc. That would make it a lot easier for the respective audiences to find what they are after,and would be more honest too.

    • The Vicar says:

      If they did that, they would shortly find that the science channel and history channel got far fewer viewers, and would end up either polluting their content or canceling them entirely.

      This is what the profit motive does.

      • tmac57 says:

        Well,that’s probably the assumption,but TV executives have regularly initially failed to recognize shows and programming content that eventually turned out to be quite popular. Seinfeld was very nearly cancelled early on,but was championed by an Exec. who kept it alive long enough for it to take off.
        I feel like a ‘real’ science channel could survive if nurtured enough,and given a chance to develop a following,what with the high quality content that is now being produced.Maybe not,but I sure wish someone would give it a go.

  6. Antiquated Tory says:

    FYI Benny Hill was Thames Television, an ITV licensee, not BBC.
    Of course BBC has a lot of rubbish, too. BBC 2, the “national alternative channel,” is the last bastion of intelligent stuff on anglophone TV. And of course there’s also Radio 4.

    • Scott the Aussie says:

      BBC4 is pretty good station where one can find Marcus de Sautoy and Jim al-Khalili doing thier stuff in a superb manner. I particularly like the fact they are reseachers first and presenters second (in opposition to the appalling “Hamster”!!), who just happen to be good on the the telly. Jims programme on Fukushima was as fine a piece of TV as I have seen in many a year.

  7. Trimegistus says:

    Yeah, there’s a lot of junk on the cable nets. But I’m old enough to remember when all the science programming on television consisted of NOVA on Tuesday nights and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on Saturdays. History programming simply didn’t exist at all. Compared to that we’re living in a Utopia of popular science and history.

  8. CountryGirl says:

    The problem is we all have choices of what to do with our time and free will to do it. If a show is “attractive” people will watch it. The job of scientists and engineers is to make their documentaries attractive to everyday people. We need it, we need to better understand science. Instead of fighting a losing fight about the fact that people don’t want to watch a boring show choose to make science interesting to none scientific people. Humanize it, put a person in front of the camera with charisma and a personality suitable for TV.

    • Aaron says:

      If only it was that simple . . .

      For the record, the job of scientists and engineers is to do science and engineering. With these tasks at hand, there is hardly any time left for anything else.

      Therefore, it is up to documentarians to make good documentaries that attract people and educate them about the real world, and this is what many of them strive to do. The trouble is that the world is also filled with people who are just trying to make a buck, and who, in an attempt to do so, put out whatever they think will attract the most viewers, including those who have no interest in becoming more educated and those who do not want to have their current beliefs/notions contradicted. Hence, a great deal of programming becomes nothing more than popular sensationalism, rather than shows which require their audience to carefully think through difficult topics, and this is true regardless of the personalty and charisma of whoever is presenting the information.

      Thus, it is not a simple matter of choosing to make science interesting to non-scientific people, for science educators have chosen to do that centuries. The problem is, once again, the fact that the profit margin forces networks to pander to those who do not want to be educated, but rather entertained.

      The question in my mind now becomes, is this a reflection of society itself? If the crap we see on TV is on TV purely because it garners the highest ratings, does this not reflect poorly upon the wants the television audience? Or, perhaps, is it our vision that television should be educational that stands in stark contradiction to how it is actually used? Personally, I gather most of my information through books and other textual media, or through the radio and podcasts. Most informational videos that I see are obtained via the Internet, and so during those rare occasions in which I sit down and watch TV, it is mostly to be entertained for a hour or two. Frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with this, but I can see how problems arise when a person considers the television set to be their primary source of knowledge. My mother, for example, regularly watches the Science Channel, and she believes that she is learning a lot of science in the process. Of course, mostly she seems to be hearing the same handful of facts repeated over and over again, and never learns anything new.

      So, yes, the educational mission of certain cable television channels has been abandoned in favor of making more money, but there is little that we can do to change this. Perhaps therefore we should continue to remind people that the TV, while okay for entertainment, is a terrible source of in depth information, and that if they are interested in learning more about any topic, they should seek that knowledge elsewhere. Of course, this does not imply that we should not also promote good science programming, but we must keep in mind that good shows will always be aired next to bad ones and ones that are produced with completely different goals in mind.

      Of course, this conclusion is nothing new, for it has been known for a long time that the TV is only good for entertainment, and that if one truly wishes to learn something, then one should read books . . . The hard part is getting people off of the ground and into their excited states in which they want to learn in the first place.

      I should also add that scathing criticism is certainly owed to networks who present pseudoscience as fact! (I’m looking at you, History Channel.)

  9. Jim Shaver says:

    Donald, I feel your pain and am at least somewhat comforted to know that you and many others out there are as discouraged with all the junk and pseudoscience on cable TV as I am. You mentioned that The Learning Channel was once co-owned by NASA. Well, the last time I was at Kennedy Space Center (in 2009), I cringed to see that The History Channel was advertised prominently as the major sponsor there. It made me wonder if the folks at NASA ever watched The History Channel.

    So now I find myself in the very awkward position of feeling compelled to defend The History Channel a little. The graphic from PhdComics shows that junk shows occupy at least 50% of the THC’s programming, and I completely agree. However, it also gives no credit for the few good shows THC does have. For example, Modern Marvels is excellent, and there are still occasionally some good war documentaries. I also enjoy Pawn Stars, American Restoration, and American Pickers, which are light-hearted, entertaining, and informative for the “reality show” genre.

    Still, there’s too much crap on.

  10. jt512 says:

    Don Prothero wrote:

    Frankly, I don’t see any light at the end of this tunnel. As long as these are commercial TV channels, they are driven by ratings and lowest-common-denominator programming aimed at 18-31 men.

    Another success for free-market capitalism. Please go tell Michael Shermer.


    • Trimegistus says:

      Yeah, how dare people watch stuff they enjoy instead of watching what we think they should watch! It’s our duty to MAKE them watch things that will make them better people — i.e. more like us.

      • The Vicar says:

        Given that there are notable bad side effects of people NOT becoming “better” in this way — both to society and to the people themselves — why not? The idea that all coercion is bad is mere stupidity.

      • Trimegistus says:

        Tell that to the people who backed Prohibition.

      • Max says:

        Giving people the OPTION of quality programming doesn’t MAKE them watch it. There’s no shortage of junk to watch, but there is a shortage of quality programming.

      • Janet Camp says:

        And it is the profit motive that prohibits this.

  11. Ariel Segal says:

    PBS at its best still has some substantially good stuff. History Detectives is usually rewarding. Sad about History Channel. They had a very good series in 1999 “Frontier: Legends of the Old Northwest” with reenaction of colonial and revolutionary era military campaigns. Haven’t seen the channel in years now-prob. for best. What channels do you find convey decent science programming?

  12. My honest opinion is that the percentages suggested in this chart are WAY too generous.

    • Jim Shaver says:

      If only a talented and qualified group of established skeptics would put together a show focused on critical thinking and on shining the light of reason onto otherwise dimly illuminated puzzles constructed from superstition and pseudoscience. Now that would be something.

  13. tim says:

    Well, the mass public wants to be entertained not educated. If you try to make them learn something or think at all, they ain’t interested. Eventually, it will deteriorate into nothing but fart jokes and beer contests.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      They do want to be educated, just entertained at the same time. I can’t tell you how many people I run into who think that the shows are representing real scientific knowledge. I’ve met plenty of intelligent students who think that the scenes from the “walking with the ___________ ” series are accurate representations of real events, as if we had recordings of the Burgess Shale animals fighting.

      • tim says:

        Good point. I’ve heard similar things about the Nostradamus Effect type shows.

      • CaseyJ says:

        What have you heard, Tim, about Nostradamus Effect type shows? Do people of otherwise normal intelligence think the sensationalist, pseudo-documentaries are factual reporting? It reminds me of the claim that in 2007, Bill O’Reilly, of The O’Reilly Factor, along with Fox crime analyst Rod Wheeler, reported that there was a lesbian gang epidemic in the US. Fact or hoax? Hard to say. Some claim that the urban legend started, when a lesbian exploitation film was broadcast, and mistaken for a documentary. It’s much like the panic from Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of a radio play that vividly described the invasion of New Jersey by space aliens. But nowadays, aren’t people more skeptical? Or are they more gullible?

  14. Max says:

    Wow, I thought it was still the Hitler Channel, but looking at its lineup of shows, it’s becoming THC the way the Learning Channel became TLC.
    Ax Men, Top Shot, Top Gear, and Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, with episode titles like Larry Cuts the Cheese.
    RIP Hitler Channel.

  15. Nathaniel Brottingham says:

    When I was on holiday in France, there was (between a see of other venues) a small candy stall on the market. It sold things like lavender candy, honey candy, herbs candy, … So why is it that when I look at the candy section in my local supermarket there is one set of shelves just filled with (marginally) different kinds of chocolate, and one filled with only slightly more varied species of liquorice? Because that’s safe and will sell well to the majority of customers. This is a well understood property of the free market: it tends to turn everything into a planed uniformity.
    This is an insight which is good to keep in the back of your head, especially where the majority of people suck. (I might have phrased that more delicately, but what would be the point?) And it doesn’t just apply to markets either – democracy can be just as bad.

    • Max says:

      Japanese markets have a wider selection of soft drinks like yogurt drinks and canned green tea. Try finding unsweetened iced tea in your local supermarket. Still, I think supermarkets import more now than they used to.

      • CountryGirl says:

        Actually unsweetened Ice tea on tap is common in 7/11’s and similar stores and in the bottle it is even more common, including super markets.

      • tmac57 says:

        Yeah,even Wal-Mart sells unsweetened ice tea by the gallon. I think it’s the Red Diamond label.

      • Max says:

        Well that’s reassuring, even if it’s toxic :-)

        Funny website. Check it out while it’s still up.

      • tmac57 says:

        Well…that was exhausting!!!

      • Janet Camp says:

        Just “more” of the same–in different packages as NB points out. When I was a young woman keeping house (how quaint of me), there were dozens of detergents on the shelf–now there’s Tide, Cheer, ERA and a couple of cheaper brands like Arm & Hammer.

        To those who require their information to be entertaining–whatever that means– I can only wonder where this will lead us as a species? I like a good movie as well as the next person, but I also know that learning my times tables by rote has served me well–but then I learned to read without–gasp–Sesame Street!

      • Max says:

        Try finding a liquid soap that’s not antibiotic.

      • Max says:

        I mean not antibacterial.

      • tmac57 says:

        OT,but here’s a ‘cheapskate’ replacement for liquid hand soap Max:
        Buy a bottle of Ivory dishsoap,and use it straight (it’s relatively mild on skin),or better still,get one of those foaming hand soap dispensers,and put about 1/4 inch Ivory in the bottle,and fill the rest with water.Makes a nice foaming hand soap for next to nothing.Oh,and it’s not anti-bacterial,of course.

      • Max says:

        Excellent, especially if it’s unscented.

      • tmac57 says:

        It says “Classic Scent” (whatever that is),on the label,but it really is pretty neutral to me, (I hate scented soaps,by the way)especially if you do the watered down foaming thing.

  16. Blaze says:

    Nobody has even mentioned how, not only are they flinging feces at us non-stop, but they are so cheap, they fling the same feces over and over and over again. “We showed some mouth-breathers in a pawn shop yesterday and got a bump of 0.001% in the ratings. We listen and respond to our viewers! So, on Saturday, we’ll show that pawn shop series ALL DAY, repeating each episode three times! Enjoy!”

  17. BillG says:

    The decay is not limited to the idiot box as the media – all forms – in general will stoop to rubbernecking or “bleeds, it leads”. As the content expands, high quality gets marginalized. The best sellers in books, magazines, CD’s or the most viewed internet sites are largely filled with superficial crap.

    Certainly you can visit the mega-monster “youtube” and get suprisingly quality math and science programs – however you still have 99.99% of worthless fluff.

    • Janet Camp says:

      Looks like I triggered some moderationI Let me rephrase:

      Oh, for goodness sake, turn the TV off and read a book! Or even a blog!

  18. d brown says:

    From what I can remember the old Discovery Channel was great. The others that were around then were hacks owned by the same corporation. Who aimed low and cheap. Their owners made so much money they brought the Discovery Channel and made it like the others they owned. Took care of the composition so to speak. I’ve heard FOX owns the National Geographic Channel. The wonder of the free market as it really is.

  19. Dr. Strangelove says:

    I only watch National Geographic and Discovery. IMO the rest of the so-called science channels are crap. The shows in these two channels are declining in quality. The decline started when they began accepting ads. Now they had to please the advertisers so they need high rating shows. High ratings mean more ad placements.

    The ghost hunter shows are idiotic and annoying. Is it Real? is ok. It deals with “weird things” but the skeptic’s view is also fairly presented. Naked Science used to be a good science show. Later episodes have become more science fiction and speculations. For higher ratings?

    It’s a pity that real science shows like the Caltech Physics Lecture Series is not carried by US science channels. I saw it in a Japanese science channel. I guess it has low ratings.

  20. Loren Petrich says:

    I wish to ask: why do niche book publishers survive but not niche TV channels? There are oodles of niche book publishers, but niche TV channels tend to make themselves much less “niche”.

    I’d like some answer other than economic Panglossianism or economic begging the question.

    • gdave says:

      I’m not sure I can offer a reply to without falling afoul of your dictum against economic Panglossianism or economic begging the question, but I’ll give it a try.

      Different things are different. Book publishers and cable TV channels are different businesses using different business models offering different goods and services in different marketplaces to different consumers. For example, publishers generally don’t form agreements with bookstores to acquire access to a bookshelf, to be stocked by the publisher with whatever books they choose in whatever arrangement they choose, to be freely consumed by browsers, in return for a cut of an entrance fee the bookstore charges browsers.

      BTW, are there actually oodles of niche book publishers? I know there are plenty of niche book imprints, but are there actually a lot of examples of an entire publishing firm with a niche focus? I’m not that familiar with the details of the publishing industry, so I genuinely don’t know.

  21. MadScientist says:

    I’d say even PBS had gone downhill. I’ve been overseas for many years now and the last time I was in the USA I switched to PBS, cursed the TV for a few minutes and walked out to find a bar. Australian TV isn’t much better – I’d recommend people do something more useful with their time. I love Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (Johnny Carson would be proud of them) but they’ve been taken off the free-to-air TV in Australia.

  22. Canman says:

    I think one reason for the decline in history and science programming is that most major topics have already been done to death.

    • Janet Camp says:

      I critiqued PBS above, but got no response. It is sad when they are the only game in town, but have also joined in the descent to mediocrity–just a little slower and less glaringly so.

    • Max says:

      Darn it, we’ve run out of history and science.
      But the woo hasn’t been done to death?

    • Canman says:

      I think a lot of the audiance for cable’s history and science programming has moved on to the internet where a lot of those previous programs are being preserved on sights like HULU and YouTube. They’re also probably spending more time on blogs. The woo audiance is sticking with TV.

  23. Chris Howard says:

    It’s the “Magic” of the invisible, freehand of the market. ;-) Content that “debunks” most people’s most cherished beliefs tend to get bad ratings. No show dealing with real skepticism, scientific methodology, and critical thinking will make it, outside of PBS. That’s okay, PBS and the like includes the skeptic demographic. We should be focusing our attentions on stations were we’re welcomed, and will achieve the best possible outcome. Cable networks are not what we should be setting our sites on. It has proven to be a waste of time, and effort. Ratings based networks will always be focused on popularity, truth be damned.
    If they offend their audience, they tend to loose ratings, which translates into revenue loss. (I worked in advertising for years, I’ve seen this time and time again)
    The networks have all audience data, and they know what that audience wants to
    see. By in large, it isn’t what we, as skeptics, have to offer. What the general audience wants to see is their beliefs validated, and doubters unsure, or discredited.

  24. Phea says:

    I watch History 2, and the Biography Chanel. They both have programs I enjoy, and programs I detest. Recently, I noticed you in a program on H2. I thought you did a great job. It must be pretty cool to have reached a professional level to be picked to appear on a documentary. Do they approach you, or is it an agent/audition type of process?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Thanks, Phea! They just call me out of the blue, mostly because I have a track record of doing lots of similar documentaries, and being able to ad lib dialogue in front of a camera with no flubs. I presume that they have their own internal lists of people who are good on camera, but I’ve never asked them how they learned about me…

  25. Jim Howard says:

    “Only PBS and other non-commercial stations can escape this “network decay”

    I don’t have much use for most of PBS, but I do like NOVA. For that we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to NOVA’s principal source of funds, David Koch.

    • Chris Howard says:

      I’m pretty sure that, both NPR, and PBS are nearly 80 some odd percent funded by viewers, no? Underwriting is largely secondary, at least it was when I was working in advertising right after the Gov. slashed their funding.

    • Janet Camp says:

      I have begun to view any programs underwritten by Koch with skepticism–especially since the one about human evolution that denied human involvement in climate change! There was quite a ruckus about this at the PBS Ombudsman’s column.

      The point made about funding is also valid. Underwriting is the smaller source of funds and viewer support the largest. See where this is stated and where you can also watch a large portion of PBS’ best content on demand.

  26. gdave says:

    Slightly off-topic, but I’d like to put in a brief word in defense of “Is It Real?” on NatGeo. It’s actually a skeptical show, and imho pretty good. It doesn’t lead with a declaration that the subject is bull$#!@ and proceed to mock people who disagree, nor does it feature hosts directly telling the audience “Myth Busted!” What it generally does is give roughly the first half of the show over to “believers” to lay out their best case, then give roughly the second half over to skeptics, scientists, and other actual experts to present their best case, then allows viewers to make their own judgements. The format is actually skewed towards skepticism, as it is the skeptics who are generally allowed the last word.

    I’d also like to second Trimegistus’ comment at #7. You do have to sort through a good bit of chaff to get to the good stuff, but there’s more good science and history programming available now than when I was a kid (there’s more of pretty much every kind of programming available now).

    NatGeo has also aired some other pretty good skeptical shows. There was a special on the moon landing hoax a few years ago, which covered a lot of the same terrain (literally in a couple of cases) as the MythBusters’ episode (but better, imho). They’ve also aired a couple of unconnected shows about the Mitchell-Hedges Skull that taken together form a pretty complete refutation the various “woo” claims about its origin, manufacture, and measurable qualities.

    • tmac57 says:

      Yes, there is generally more of everything on the air:Good, bad, mediocre. My guess is that the good to bad ratio is shifting toward the bad,but then again that may just be the ‘good ole days’ syndrome. I feel the same way about the entertainment type shows too (drama,comedy etc), there are some of the best shows that I have ever seen now,and also some of the worst.At least we have a wide variety of choices.I guess what bugs me the most, is that the labels of those channels are misleading,since their content now hardly resembles what it was originally supposed to represent.

  27. Beelzebud says:

    What did it for me was a program on History Channel that posed the question: Is there a black hole in the center of the earth?

    Their expert? Jon Hutchison. Google him. There are vidoes of it on youtube. They actually referred to this quack as “Dr. Hutchison” throughout the show. I was astounded that they were presenting that kind of BS as a serious topic, and promoting a guy like that..

    • Aaron says:

      I’ll never forget the night on which I saw that program. I was completely dumbfounded, and any remaining credibility of the History Chanel was erased from my mind.

      To make matters worse, I watched it with my mother, whose response to me as I tore apart everything that “Dr.” Hutchison and the narrator said was, “you are so closed-minded!” Naturally, the program ended with Hutchison’s declaration that anyone who disagreed with him was simply closed-minded, and so my own mother lost much of her credibility as well. To my chagrin, she still loves the “History” Chanel–Ancient Aliens in particular–but I find solace in the fact that her only child grew up to become a physicist and a skeptic!

      • Aaron says:

        Also, I should add that the last time I saw the History Channel, they were running a John Wayne style western. Unless this was part of a documentary about mid-to-late 20th century cinema, they truly have given up their educational mission.

  28. Phea says:

    Many years ago I was at the State Fair. I asked the folks at the classic rock and roll radio station booth why they played the same playlist day in and out. I asked why they never, ever played some of less known but great songs on the classic albums that didn’t get much play the first time around.

    I was told that F.M. radio wasn’t for people like me who actually liked music and listened to it. I was told that the average listener, upon hearing anything unfamiliar, would switch stations. F.M. radio is not for people who are serious music listeners, anymore than a fast food place is for people who are serious about what they eat.

    I believe that for the most part, F.M. radio, fast food, T.V. and most endeavors which try to cater to a very large audience, do a decent job of providing product to the masses.

  29. Peter Damian says:

    As a boy, two of my heroes were David Lee Roth and Carl Sagan. Science just needs some more Sagan rock stars.
    Ironically this blog post is itself a trope. Looking at writings from the ancients through to the present there have always been concerns about the degeneration of the quality of information available through whatever medium prevalent at the time and it’s impact upon society.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      But the point here is that with the Reagan-era deregulation of the airwaves in the 1980s, we were promised all these new educational niche channels that would enhance the quality of television (one of the justifications of deregulation in the first place). But 30 years later, they have nearly all degenerated to junk. So there is a specific event and a specific point in time which caused the situation that is discussed in this blog. It’s not just bemoaning how things were better in the past…

      • Phea says:

        The past? The good old days where science on T.V. was pretty much Walt Disney’s, “Wonderful World Of Science”, where we were lied to on a regular basis? Or Mutual of Omaha’s, “Wild Kingdom”.

        While it’s far from perfect T.V. has really come a long way in the past 50 years. Yes, there is a LOT of junk on T.V., but there are also a lot of very well made programs and documentaries that actually have made,(for me personally), learning new things fun and entertaining.

      • Janet Camp says:

        Phea, PBS was running Nature and NOVA every week (new programming) then, whereas now there are mostly only reruns punctuated by pledge drives and the content is continually dumbed down. The footage of wild animals is spectacular, but little science is reported. I support these programs because they raise awareness and lead to increased support of conservation, but the science presented in most of them is at a very introductory level–if that.

        It isn’t about what you or any individual “enjoys”. We were promised SCIENCE, which young people (reared on sitcoms and reality TV) are sorely in need of.

      • tmac57 says:

        Well, if the statistics on the public’s poor understanding of science are to be believed,then “introductory level” science, is what is needed the most.But I take your point.

      • Peter Damian says:

        Yes you’re right. But I think it’s still a trope, although a very valid and pertinent one.
        Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to catch up on my understanding of the American people and your culture on an in depth and insightful show called swamp people.

      • Phea says:

        Peter, I’m not sure what effect it’s had on American culture or if it’s even been studied, but something I’ve always wondered about are the constant lies told and accepted as correct behavior on sitcoms. Almost every plot since the Honeymooners involves some sort of lie or deception.

      • Shane Brady says:


        Can you be specific with the Reagan deregulation of the airwaves that applies here? I’m only aware of the repealing of the “Fairness Doctrine” which wouldn’t and never did appy to pay cable channels that aren’t broadcast via the airwaves.

      • d brown says:

        At the start of radio there was no regulation of the airwaves. It did not work and stations stepped on others. The government said airwaves were made for the good of the people, and made regulation. That’s all the people. After the Reagan deregulation they are no longer for the good of all, only for the free market users who don’t pay for it. One thing was the free market puts in the most commercials they can. Its still your’s but the new rules say, but money can do what ever they can. In all the deregulation it was proposed that the owners bid on the free market for what they wanted. That was different and did not happened, we still own the airwaves. And they can do what they want. With out paying us.

      • Shane Brady says:

        Well, I don’t agree with you on the airwaves, but that’s besides the point of this article, which talked about pay channels that weren’t covered by the fairness doctrine or any other regulation related to the airwaves.

  30. d brown says:

    “Adam Smith is the one great thinker whose ideas can be taken on faith” Well what he really said and did maybe. One thing for sure he did not do the things the R/W is so in love with when he was a government minister. He did believe the free market needed rules. A lot of what he said is now taken out of context for propaganda.

    • Retired Prof says:

      Thanks for that, d brown. Just as religious fundamentalists search the Bible for quotations that support their predilections while ignoring the ones that don’t, political right-wingers quote-mine Smith to omit his references to the function of regulations in making trade flow freely.

  31. Paul Tucker says:

    Does anyone know why there are so many religous channels on cable? How do they support themselves? Is it just the fools that watch them and send in their cash? Do I help support them by paying my cable bill? Do they get a special deal because they are religous? Just wondering.

  32. d brown says:

    Years ago, even before the Internet, the things that everyone knew started to smell. The words of great men were in print and full of 3 dots. That means something was taken out. I had to go downtown to the big main library. In the references I found what the wise men said without the space filling dots. Everything, and mean everything with the dots had been rewritten to make them republican. And not changed just a little. The meaning was changed almost 90% or more. Now they are leaving the dots out and just plain lying. And nobody says a word now.

  33. Kenn says:

    • Remember when MTV was Music TV?

    • Consider the alternative: remove the free market influence. You get PBS replete with stuffy British rejects and Charlie Rose boring your socks off.

    • Regarding religious channels: Religious programming is a bit more difficult to produce and slightly more expensive than your standard webcam YouTube production. Anyone endowed with personality and marketing savvy can make a killing. The programs are funded by donations, selling Jesus junk and traveling road shows. I actually enjoy Jimmy Swaggart’s southern-style music. For added entertainment you can record the preachers and play them back, mash down on the PAUSE button now and again. The contorted faces on freeze frame are hilarious. There’s another TV preacher from Louisiana (can’t recall his name) who is actually funny; could have been a comedian.

    • Consider the other religious channels: The ESPNs.

    • Discovery Channel: I like to watch the two guys who pretend to be lost in the woods. They ponder how to descend a treacherous cliff. It doesn’t occur to them to ask the camera man how he got down there.

    • Bob the producer: “Here’s an idea! Let’s make a show about gangster wives and their dysfunctional families!” Henry. “Okay.”

    • Betty in marketing: “Let’s make a 3D TV.” Barb: “Yeah, I bettin’ people will pay $3,000 to check out Bill OReilly’s nose.”

  34. d brown says:

    in the rain and muck in the army we said it could always be worse. well it could somehow.

  35. TJ says:

    Nat geo is getting more trashy, I wish their TV was more like their magazine.

  36. MoTown says:

    I haven’t had any kind of TV for 5 years and am so thankful, I’m missing out on 0.0 content.

  37. Reggie says:

    Blimey, I hadn’t realised how lucky we are in the U.K. with the B.B.C.,particularly BBC4. Generally good quality, well presented and darned factual programming.It covers so much of the material and subjects that seem to be missing in the U.S. and elsewhere. Well done us.

  38. FedUpWith Garbage says:

    The Discovery and History channels are DEAD.
    Just like the rest of television.
    Their deaths were the final nails in the coffin.
    I have turned off my cable TV.

    I did this because I’m sure that, by next month, they would have had a new program called, “Ow! My Balls!”. It’s become THAT bad.

    If this reference confuses you, do feel free to Google it…

  39. Carole says:

    Only watch PBS. They aren’t hindered by requiring certain viewership levels in order to keep advertisers happy. They get enormous resistance from fundamentalists and the anti-science groups, but they have managed to put out some extraordinary programs over the years, like the award-winnng Nova.

    When more than 40% of americans believe the Rapture is coming and 46% believe in Creationism, most TV networks are just catering the crowd.

  40. Tia says:

    Honestly, I think it is as simple as this: most people are not interested in critical reasoning, are unreflective thinkers, and are probably incapable of doing the work required to follow real science and complex questions of history. They want the familiar, the sensationalist, the conveniently-close-to-what-I-already-want-to-believe.

    I am a Catholic Christian, but I can tell you there is more chance that the stories in the Bible are pure mythology than all this 18th century Protestant Rationalism, “The burning bush was a volcanic vent, yeah, that’s the ticket!” It’s pathetic non-content for permanent children and cretins.

    You know, like television.