It's hard to believe now, but there was a brief moment in history when the idea of "educational television" was a godsend for a world being sullied by the two-headed demon temptress of MTV and Skinemax. Yes, back in the early years of cable, there were entire channels devoted to educating the masses: Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel (TLC), et cetera. Unfortunately, something terrible has happened in the last few years and the idea of using TV to make people smarter has been flushed down the toilet. Here's why:
#4. "Educational" Is a Bad Word
Considering that it's typically called "educational programming," you'd assume that the first thing TV executives would look for in an educational show is whether or not it teaches something. That's what one Emmy-nominated children's show host thought after launching a hugely popular program that taught American Sign Language to children. People loved and awarded her first show -- why not launch a whole other show that taught kids stuff?
ASL is metal as hell.
Here's why: Because her new concept was considered "too educational for television." At least that's what Disney and PBS said. The problem, according to creator Rachel Coleman, is that she's trying to package too much information -- in fact, a whole year's worth of preschool -- into a series. Never mind that Sesame Street kind of had the same mandate and delivered with enormous success, or that people actually like it when kids learn crap while watching the idiot box. PBS focused on a whole Jim Henson Company series about dinosaur facts instead, which is still neat in its own right. But still -- how the hell can a kid's show be "too educational"? Hell, we might as well pack in all the extra nuggets of knowledge we can before the kids settle in to a solid seven decades of watching COPS.
#3. Educational Channels Just Lie to Us Now
When a channel devoted to education airs a documentary, people tend to assume -- thanks to the very definition of the word "documentary" -- that the filmmakers didn't just make shit up. (Fun fact: They're called "documentaries" because they document reality!) Otherwise, we'd call them "Actor Show Fakery Cavalcade" or some shit.
Frederick M. Brown / Getty
The best documentarians succeed by out-crazying fiction.
So obviously viewers got more than a little pissed off to see Discovery kicking off Shark Week with a "documentary" about finding evidence that megalodons still exist, only to end with a three-second disclaimer telling everyone it was complete hogwash. For our very few readers who weren't in on the controversy, the megalodon was a gigantic prehistoric shark that's been dead for millions of years. The Discovery Channel, on the other hand, knew said fact when airing this crockumentary.
"Prepare to 'discover' how full of shit we are!"
Unfortunately, 79 percent of viewers assumed this was a real documentary. But the worst part is that the idea of faking educational documentaries isn't anything new. It happened just last year when Animal Planet ran another fake show about the existence of mermaids. And like the megalodon, people assumed they weren't just blowing smoke out of their reverse food holes.
The confusion forced the fucking National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue a statement saying mermaids weren't real, because they were actually getting calls from people scared of mermaids. Try not to think about that for too long.
Also, try to ignore the implications of this CGI tricking adult human beings.
#2. The Ratings for Crap Is Too High Not to Air Crap
Of the aforementioned fake shark and mermaid documentaries, can you guess how well they did? Did you just guess "a dump truck full of ratings"? Good job, because that's how well they did! The megalodon show got 4.8 million viewers -- better than any show ever on Shark Week. So while the scientific community might accuse them of dumbing down the educational discourse of America, wadded-up $100 bills make extremely good earplugs.
And that's the sad bottom line here, as Animal Planet's mermaid sequel also topped out as being the most successful show EVER on that station, making it mysteriously more popular than the Puppy Bowl and no doubt setting up yet another sequel down the line. Brace yourself for Appalachian Satyrs: Fact or Even More Fact and Mermaids 2: Fuck Science.
With all the money this series is earning, you think they could afford to just sew dolphin tails onto real actors.
Heck, when Nik Wallenda walked the Grand Canyon on a tightrope, Discovery got 13 million viewers all waiting to watch him die (he didn't). Because that's what America wants -- after all, these are the same idiots who think mermaids exist for some reason.
#1. All This Dreadful Stupidity Is Because of One Company
You might notice at this point that this trend seems to transcend the various stations. Fake documentaries and reality shows pretty much haunt all of the educational programming out there. Heck, the Discovery and History channels alone are promoting such gems as Airplane Repo, Amish Mafia, Naked Castaway, Auction Kings, Pawn Stars, and Swamp People. And as much as we might like to, let's not forget what's happening over at the "Learning" Channel.
Hint: It isn't learning.
So what's the deal with that? Why are so many educational stations taking the low road? The answer is simple: They're all owned by the same people. Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, the Science Channel, and the Military Channel -- these are all under the same company called Discovery Networks, a group that back in 2007 began a station-wide "rebranding" under a brand new CEO moved over from NBC. One year after that, we got Toddlers & Tiaras.
But it's not all that bad. Thanks to Discovery Networks' move out of education, PBS -- the OG of learning -- has seen a much needed spike in ratings from people who are still able to learn without the aid of CGI sharks or adorable and irrelevant animals. Of course, the fact that Downton Abbey is the highest-rated show they've ever had means that the best thing PBS has going for it is fictional dramas. So, shit.
Adorable penguin shit.