Dear Discovery Channel,
You posted this text just before an hour-long show on the first night of what-used-to-be-awesome Shark Week:
Submarine is a shark first sighted off the coast of South Africa in 1970. Eyewitness accounts say it is 35 feet long. Its existence is highly controversial. Events may have been dramatized, but many believe Submarine exists to this day.
After watching the show and checking a few sources, apparently another word for “dramatized” in this case could have been “faked.” The “sinking” of the boat you portrayed isn’t real. The witnesses you interviewed were actors (not very good ones, either). The film of the shark hovering vertically was just silly. While there is a legend of a giant shark by that name, just about everything you “dramatized” was about as real as an online PhD.
And that’s the problem. What’s your brand about these days? In the past, many of us would have said that the Discovery Channel has a high level of authenticity to it. Your slogan, “The world is awesome,” would suggest that at least. But based on your latest Shark Week content, which had dozens of people in boats chasing sharks, but precious few actual scientists, it would seem that the real world isn’t awesome enough to drive ratings, or maybe it’s just too inconvenient to stick to actual marine science.
Let’s compare this to the legend of the Loch Ness Monster.
It’s one thing to report on what other people might be doing to find or prove that a legendary creature exists, while keeping a balanced approach. It’s another to portray the sinking of a boat and footage of people being pulled under by a giant shark as actual footage “taken by amateurs” at the scene of the boat sinking.
Now, I have to admit, the staging of this was so laughably bad at times, that you, Discovery, might argue that it was clearly a fictional portrayal or “dramatization.” But even so, the story line is fake, as well. There is no public record of what you are portraying. Sure, there are pieces that you cobbled together from disparate sources, but the key event NEVER HAPPENED. It’s a “dramatization” of fiction, not reality.
Which brings me to the Amish Mafia.
I live in Lancaster County, Penn., where you film this show. Like Shark Week, you present “Amish Mafia” as a reality show, but there are precious few facts to be found when you look behind the curtain. Oh, your characters are real people, with real identities and real criminal records (tough stuff like DUIs and shoplifting), but it pretty much ends there. The local Amish don’t even consider your characters to be part of their communities. And local law enforcement has stated that the show is 99 percent false. The supposed exploits of Lebanon Levi and his band are staged, made-up, or stretched beyond belief. What you would call “dramatized,” I suppose. “Fake” is easier to spell, however. “Amish Mafia” is now being described as religious bigotry by various groups, and I have to admit I have a hard time imagining that you would put on a show using a major religion such a Catholicism or Judaism as the setting for your imaginative portrayals. The Amish won’t publically contest your exploitation of them, but the Vatican just might.
So, this rant is another way of saying that the Discovery Channel brand seems to be losing its way. It’s a problem that several cable brands are experiencing as they struggle to fill their schedules with content. The History Channel runs shows about ancient aliens, MTV rarely has music on it anymore, the Science Channel reaches out to the edge of pseudoscience on a regular basis.
I, personally, would like to see cable network brands like yours, Discovery, that use authenticity as a basis for their brand to actually stick to the ethics that such a brand implies. Tell the truth about your content. Dramatize if you must, but dramatize reality, not myth. Anyone who came into your show about Submarine a few minutes late, missed your double-talk disclaimer and may have thought the show was far more real than it was. Is that what you want, to fool your viewers? Which is why I asked you a simple question in the first word of this letter. Really, Discovery Channel? Or maybe you should you change your slogan to “Not really.” It would be more authentic that way.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Lehigh Valley Business.