“You have to go in head first” when getting eaten alive by an anaconda, according to the Discovery Channel’s sneak peek of Eaten Alive, its newest affront to televised science. On Dec. 7, Discovery will air one brave man’s quest into (and back out of) the belly of the beast—an anaconda, to be exact. This move is only the newest entry in a growing collection of pseudoscience and outright fiction clogging the airwaves of the once-educational TV channel.
On its surface, watching a “naturalist and wildlife filmmaker” survive feeding himself to a giant snake in the Amazon sounds pretty awesome—unless, of course, you’re the giant snake. But it’s gratuitous cruelty. If this were an attempt to understand snake digestion, the filmmakers could easily feed the snake a camera. If this were about gawking at a snake eating something huge, there’s always that YouTube video of the python eating a crocodile—a true act of nature wherein no animal was duped into wasting its energy eating (and then regurgitating) a guy who covered himself in pig’s blood. Discovery has already shot the program, and it says both man and snake are alive and well. In fact, stuntman Paul Rosolie has been tweeting about the program.
This is about pushing the envelope and garnering shock views—which is fair enough, until you factor in an abused snake and the fact that this is part of a series of unscientific endeavors by a channel whose reputation at least somewhat still involves education. A petition to stop the program from airing has garnered more than 20,000 signatures. Discovery told People magazine that it consulted three herpetologists before signing off on the stunt, but that didn’t stop PETA from calling it animal cruelty. Snakes often regurgitate their prey, but it’s usually a response to stress or outside threats, said David Steen, a wildlife ecologist at Auburn University. He added that retrieving a food item from a snake would be “stressful at the very least” to the snake.
“Done wrong, I can easily see how the snake could be injured,” Steen said. “For example, if I were to yank something out of a snake's stomach (rather than have the snake regurgitate it on its own), I would be concerned about causing internal injuries.”
Steen said he hoped the show had some educational goals, and noted it certainly has more potential to draw viewers than feeding a small camera to a snake would. Perhaps these viewers might become interested in snakes and seek out more educational material after watching. But he also fears the motivation here is “primarily exploitation of animals for ratings.”
This concern has been voiced before about Discovery programming. Shark Week, arguably one of Discovery’s biggest pieces of viewer bait, has been accused of capitalizing on people’s fear of sharks while simultaneously misinforming the public about an animal that is actually in danger. It’s also not the channel’s first foray into shock programming—last Sunday it aired Nik Wallenda traversing the Chicago skies on a tightrope with no safety net or tether. Animal Planet, which is also owned by Discovery Communications, has made two documentaries on mermaids that are so ineffectively marked as fictional that the U.S. government has had to issue a statement informing the public that mermaids aren’t real. It’s also home to Finding Bigfoot. (I’m not going to elaborate on this.) The History Channel, which is owned by Disney, airs shows about aliens. And let’s not even talk about TLC, another Discovery Communications channel, which has long stopped calling itself “The Learning Channel.”
When did educational television become so unenlightening?
It’s not a new question, but the answer isn’t easy to stomach: It’s kind of viewers’ fault. TV channels, after all, are just businesses. As businesses, it’s their job to make money. And to make money, they need viewers—and this is where our culpability lies. Put simply, if people didn’t reliably swarm in to watch these shows, they wouldn’t continue to air. Animal Planet hit record viewership last year with its second mermaid documentary. If it makes money, why stop?
“Somewhere along the line they realized that airing sensational nonsense tended to generate higher ratings and more advertising revenue than the wildlife documentaries I remember growing up,” Steen said. “So, it's a no-brainer. Education is not their mission.”
The problem is that many viewers still don’t know that—ask all the people who tweeted about mermaids. These channels have enduring reputations as informational, accurate sources. These don’t get undone in a few years—or even a decade, necessarily. The result is a viewership that can get severely duped, find out they’ve been misinformed, and then develop a mistrust not only for these channels, but for science in general, Steen said.
“In many cases, these shows even foster a distrust towards scientists and the scientific method; this was particularly evident in the wake of the programs making the case that mermaids exist or megalodon never went extinct.”
For most of us, channels like Discovery are our everyday link to the information about science and the environment. But now you can actually come out of these shows knowing less information than when you tuned in—again, ask people who got uneducated by watching documentaries about species that don’t exist today.
An anaconda eating a guy doused in animal blood might not misinform anyone—it’s not like anyone believes this happens in everyday life (I hope). But it plays into a larger business of exploitation and misinformation. Not to jump down anybody’s throat, but it would be nice if these channels used their influence for good, not evil—and for viewers to realize their voyeurism is turning the exploitation of animals into a veritable cash cow.