If one scene defines last week's premiere of Ted Nugent's Gun Country, set in the survivalist-thick scrublands surrounding Waco, Texas, it is the show's unnervingly giddy and pony-tailed host standing behind a .50-caliber Browning armor-piercing machine gun and blowing a bunch of holes in the four-inch reinforced steel door used by a team of local "preppers" to protect their bunker armory against an attack of the undead. Neither the machine gun nor the vault hatch fills any conceivable civilian-defense need, but the show, like the gun culture it celebrates, is all about overkill. An excited Nugent declares his intent to upgrade the defenses around his own bunker gun closet, and after a commercial break appears on screen pumping off rounds from the preppers' Zombie Apocalypse chainsaw-shotgun.
It's the sort of weapon you'd expect to see wielded with glee in a Dawn of the Dead remake, not on the flagship network of a media behemoth claiming a science-educational mission. But such is the state of programming these days on the Discovery Channel, long overdue for an honest update of its tagline, "Science, History, Space, Tech, Sharks, News!"
It is admittedly quaint to say in 2012 that a billion-dollar cable corporation has failed to live up to its stated values, and we're at least several decades past debating whether television can become the productive social force some imagined during the medium's infancy. Indeed, Discovery's devolution was notable a full decade ago, when the science journalist Chris Mooney penned an op-ed for the Washington Post bemoaning its programming turn away from science documentaries and toward the paranormal, the sensational, and the idiotic. Discovery Communications, noted Mooney, touted its goal of helping young viewers "critically analyze" information even as its properties such as Animal Planet increasingly aired fare like The Pet Psychic. A spokeswoman for the company claimed at the time that such shows represented a "whimsical take" on the company's science mission.
The Pet Psychic is A Brief History of Time compared to many of the shows now airing on the channel. In recent years Discovery has joined other companies in its former documentary niche in largely abandoning in-depth science programming in favor of its antipode, what might best be called anti-science: shows that glorify stupidity and celebrate a giggling, Beavis and Butthead-style pleasure in blowing stuff up and killing things.
Discovery is not filling a munitions void here so much as chasing the lowest common ratings denominator; The Outdoor Network and The History Channel first pioneered programming for the demo Nugent calls "gun nuts." But Discovery has gone furthest down the rabbit-hunting hole. Among the channel's slew of reality shows are three and counting devoted to portraying the patriotic fun to be had with high-caliber automatic weapons: American Guns, Sons of Guns, and the special (or is it pilot?) that aired last week, Ted Nugent's Gun Country, which officially pushes the phenomenon beyond the reach of parody. It is as if ESPN began airing a show called Frog Baseball Tonight.
In Discovery's growing universe of reality show gun porn the real stars are the automatic pistols and assault rifles, weapons which share the double honor of being at the center of both numerous recent gun massacres and the gun industry's ongoing sales boom. The kinds of high-caliber, high-round combinations featured on these shows rarely have anything to do with hunting or personal defense. They are the stuff of survivalism, militias, and mass-killings. And they are commercially available due in part to the dubiously earned political clout of the National Rifle Association. The organization expends millions subverting and blocking all attempts to discuss common-sense gun violence prevention and has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.
For its efforts, the NRA is generously rewarded by the gun and ammo industries from which it is increasingly difficult to separate. This NRA-industry nexus understands that its financial future will be secured by evangelizing and enshrining the social acceptability of assault weapons, as well as the marginalization of gun control as somehow "un-American".
This effort received a media assist with last week's premiere of Ted Nugent's Gun Country, which solidifies Discovery's claim on being the NRA Network of basic cable. Nugent, an NRA board member, admitted as much in an interview with NRA News, saying the show was major platform for promoting his side of the "culture war." Nugent's side of the culture war is a place where "real Americans" are defined as "white motherfucking shit kickers," Democratic politicians can "suck on my machine gun," and the possibility that the country may have benefited from Confederate victory in the Civil War is one meriting serious consideration.
This stuff plays well to the kind of NRA member Discovery appears to be targeting. At last year's NRA convention in St. Louis, I was present when Nugent told a story to wild applause in which he described the inhabitants of inner city Detroit as "sub-human animals." Outside in the convention hallway, banner ads for tactical assault rifles hung alongside billboards advertising Discovery's gun programming.
Gun companies do not sponsor Ted Nugent's Gun Country or the channel's other gun shows. They don't have to. Like the NRA-industry complex, these shows are infomercials in thin disguise, both for gunsmoke-flavored kulturkampf and its commercial products. Nugent's premiere last week focused around the LaRue line of tactical assault weapons, in particular the PredatAR, which Nugent referred to in one of many bald plugs as "the ultimate weapon." During another scene, Nugent field-tests ammunition including his own branded line, Ted Nugent Ammo. Several shots feature the product's distinctive red, white, and blue packaging.
If history is any guide, Nugent's show will give Discovery reasons to duck future press enquiries, as their spokesperson ducked mine. In their hunt for backwoods authenticity, the channel has a record of hiring people prone to embarrass publicity departments. Take the comments made by Renee Wyatt of American Guns, who told a reporter in the wake of the Aurora, Colorado, massacre, "If a member of the audience in a front row of that theater was carrying a gun and had the ability to effectively use it, that gunman could have been neutralized before he could get a second round into the crowd." Discovery issued a statement distancing itself from Wyatt's comments, which echoed similar comments made by Ted Nugent. Both statements reflect an antipathy to common sense and the data record. A recent analysis of mass shootings by Mother Jones shows that during 30 years of rising massacres and spreading conceal-and-carry legalization, not one mass shooting has ever been stopped by a civilian with a gun.
Discovery's transformation into the NRA Network is a harrowing example of "network decay." Discovery isn't the only channel to be subject to this critique, but the arrival of Ted Nugent on their roster is a new low suggestive of just how much more socially destructive television can become. The station's trajectory is also a lesson in what can happen to educational content companies when they are subjected to the pressures of the bottom line and shareholder value.
Discovery began as the Cable Educational Network Inc. in 1982. It launched under its current name three years later after securing $5 million in backing from New York Life Insurance, Allen and Co., Inc., and Group W Satellite Communications. In a New York Times piece published in 1985, "A channel with a difference," Discovery founder and CEO to this day John S. Hendricks claimed to draw inspiration from successful high-quality public television fare like Nova. Toward this end he inked access deals with foreign public stations such as the BBC, the CBC, and the National Film Unit of New Zealand. This was reflected in an inaugural week full of shows on the science of ice floes, the ancient Egyptian king Akhenaten, volcanic activity, and a 12-part look at the continental-drift theory. Hendricks compared Discovery to magazines as Scientific American and Smithsonian, and described the channel as being "for what we call the lifelong learners. [People] who maintain a curiosity about the world, and who want to come away from a program enriched as well as amused."
Fast forward to now, when the company controls nearly 150 worldwide television networks reaching almost 2 billion cumulative subscribers with assets of more than $12 billion, and "enriching" apparently means watching Ted Nugent, his son Rocco, and his "bunker bitch" blow the heads off of ketchup-filled zombies with a group of assault weapon-stockpiling survivalists.
The argument has been made that television should not be in the business of educating people in the first place. In his classic critique of image-based media, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that television is most dangerous when it invades realms for which it is structurally unsuited. "Television," wrote Postman, "serves us most usefully when presenting junk entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse--news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion--and turns them into entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better."
This was a debatable argument when Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985. Going on 30 years later, the idea of separating television from "serious modes of discourse" belongs in a display case in New York's Museum of the Moving Image. Television has gotten worse, though not as Postman would have liked. There has been no concomitant loosening of its claims on politics, education and science. This means that what remaining sources of good science programming that do exist need defending. It has always been unlikely that television would create future giants of astrophysics. But it's probable that at least a few science careers were launched by the 1980 broadcast of Carl Sagan's Cosmos on PBS. Ditto some of the shows Discovery has produced and continues to fund, such as the BBC collaboration Planet Earth. For what it's worth, the channel is currently up for five Emmys in the "News & Documentary" category, a sign that it hasn't completely forgotten where it came from. Discovery's early growth proves it is possible to draw viewers without mainstreaming bigots like Nugent and exalting a vision of an excessively armed America.
Discovery's growing offering of gun fare takes an ominous cast in light of the conservative movement's war on the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The GOP Congress has in the last two years cut 13 percent from the CPB's budget and is threatening to eliminate federal funding entirely. If the country's 1,300 non-commercial television and radio stations are abandoned to commercial pressures, it is hard to imagine them avoiding Discovery-like network decay. Their post-privatization science programming won't resemble the Cosmos you grew up with.
Like Seth MacFarlane's Cosmos reboot due to air next year on Fox, the shows will be diced into small chunks by Doritos and Nissan and Chevron ads. It's even possible that viewers of formerly public channels will find themselves stumbling upon Ted Nugent's Gun Country in syndication. Because if there is an endgame to current trend lines, it is Ted Nugent taking over Nova and beseeching anyone who doesn't like it to suck on his machine gun.