After undergoing a programming shift in 2008, Animal Planet has become little more than a cable hub for unscientific, sensationalist fare.
Last year, Animal Planet—the 11-year-old cable channel owned by Discovery Communications—underwent a dramatic programming shift. After a slip in ratings, the popular cable channel decided to overhaul its gentle, educational image and, instead, give ‘em a little razzle-dazzle. No longer was the channel going to imitate the stuffy, narrator-driven style of classic nature documentary. Rather, as Animal Planet general manager Marjorie Kaplan said in a 2008 New York Times article, the channel was determined to “be an entertainment destination.”
The programming shift was part of a larger public image makeover aimed at promoting an edgier, less scholarly Animal Planet that Kaplan hoped would draw in more adult viewers. To achieve this, the channel focuses less on wild animals and more on humans and our domestic companions: nearly 60 percent of the shows listed on Animal Planet’s online programming guide deal directly or heavily with humans or cats and dogs.
According to their online mission statement, “Discovery Communications is committed to supporting the extension of science, environmental and other educational programs in the U.S…. and promoting the value of nonfiction content and documentary filmmaking across all genres.” Unfortunately, Discovery’s new Animal Planet programming sensationalizes and humanizes nature at the expense of education, science and the environment. It’s a trend that hurts both animals and the planet.
Ironically, most Animal Planet shows are about humans. Maybe this is because, at the end of the day, we are all just animals. I don’t buy it. Granted, the channel has the right to broadcast as it chooses, but to call itself “Animal Planet” seems misleading considering that more than half its shows concern humans and their pets. “Domestic Animal Planet” might be a more appropriate appellation.
Programs like “Living with the Wolfman”, “Jockeys”, and “Groomer Has It” (think Project Runway but with pet stylists) have little to do with animals and even less to do with science. These shows are Animal Planet’s take on reality T.V.—the human-drama darling of modern network programming. And they conform perfectly to Kaplan’s seeming mission to de-animalize Animal Planet; because reality T.V. without humans and their histrionical nonsense is, really, just classic nature documentary, which Kaplan seems determined to avoid.
In its quest for edgy, hard-core programming, Animal Planet also tends to exploit common phobias and demonize the animals that inspire those phobias. Indeed, snakes, spiders, and sharks—many species of which are in desperate need of conservation and general public sympathy—are often cast as the “bad guys” on Animal Planet: their arrival on screen is accompanied by sinister musical clips and hammy voice-overs that refer to the animals as “killing machines” and “monsters.” Not only is this cinematic device clichéd and predictable, it stupidly suggests that spiders and other “creepy crawlers” are motivated by malice rather than biology. Spiders and sharks need to eat too.
The show “River Monsters” is perfect example of this trend. Host Jeremy Wade travels the globe in search of the world’s “deadliest freshwater monsters,” which usually turn out to be catfish. Wade bases his quests on various legends and local superstitions about “man-eating” river fish, which he then tries to catch. Wade uses these anecdotes to justify his repeated references to the fish as “monsters” and “man-eaters.”
In one episode, Wade goes searching for the giant Goonch catfish in India’s Kali River. The episode was mostly a collection of cheesy reenactments showing Indian boys being dragged dramatically underwater by some enigmatic, aquatic enemy. When Wade and his team finally spot some Goonch in underwater caves, just hanging out, the men are quick to refer to the fish, which are highly endangered and little studied, as “a horror.” These fish, Wade rather disappointedly admits, are not nearly big enough to eat a person.
The show ends with Wade catching a 150-pound-Goonch that he capriciously blames for an Indian boy’s death, to which there was only one witness. Three cheers for the scientific method! Imprecise “infotainment” fits well with Kaplan’s vision for the channel. In a Broadcasting and Cable article by Anne Becker, Kaplan says, “At Animal Planet, we want you to feel first before you start thinking.” Seriously?
In addition, the rampant animal anthropomorphism featured on Animal Planet promotes an unrealistic view of nature. For example, in programs like “Meerkat Manor” and “Orangutan Island”, animals are ridiculously imbued with human characteristics, and given human names and storylines, all under the banner of accessibility. In a recent episode of “Meerkat Manor”, narrator Sean Aston describes a female meerkat as “overbearing,” and another as being in “an uncompromising mood.” Maybe they should think about a spin-off. “Meerkat Mothers-in-Law,” perhaps?
This kind of reckless anthropomorphism is especially confusing to young or naïve viewers. When they encounter animals in the wild, they may expect the animals to display the human reactions and behaviors implied on television. This could, and has, lead to dangerous encounters in which deluded people try to approach or handle wild creatures. As a result, when a shark attacks a swimmer or a raccoon wanders into a garbage can, people are shocked—“a human wouldn’t do that”—and nature falls from the pretty, anthropomorphized pedestal on which we placed it: the shark is demonized and the raccoon branded a pest.
Some argue that attributing uniquely human notions like “evil”, “compassion”, and “mercy” to animals or sensationalizing their behavior helps humans connect with nature. But you don’t have to dress nature up in human clothes to make it exciting or accessible, as British naturalist Sir David Attenborough, marine explorer Jacques Cousteau, and documentarian Jacques Perrin have proved through their work. The elements that make nature and wildlife fascinating—death, struggle, adaptation, renewal—happen without (and often despite) humanity. It’s an ecological insight that gives nature value outside of our relationship with it and one that Animal Planet is too quick to dismiss.
These days, kids’ opportunities to learn about natural history and ecology are few and far between. Video games and Television compete with the outdoors for kids’ attention. Indeed, kids’ opportunities to explore nature seem limited to a few enlightened summer camps or the Scouts. Instead of learning about the world by exploring it, most kids, and adults for that matter, turn to their television to tell them what they need to know. It’s a shame then, that, with so many people watching, Animal Planet has nothing important to say.« « Previous Post ~ LED: The Future of Light| Next Post ~ Love that Rising Water » »