Ted Nugent, Discovery, And The Rise Of Anti-Science TV
Blog ››› ››› ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
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.