The Unreality of Reality TV — Or Why NatGeo Should Be Ashamed

One of the more irritating things about the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel, which purport to be pro-science and educational, is how often they put on shows that push egregious nonsense instead of critical thinking. And a new NatGeo show about UFOs is so bad that even the stars of the show are now slamming the network:

The two stars of the show, James Fox and Ben McGee, left these comments on the Facebook page of a New York Times reporter:

Fox: “I know how disappointed all of you are. I am too. It’s not the show that was sold to both myself and scientist Ben. Two months into it, we were off to a great start; good locations, solid witnesses and some opportunities for Ben to apply his field research as a geologist at some crash sites. Very exciting stuff. Unfortunately, when we actually got out in the field, we began to realize that they were more interested in poking around at night than allocating the time necessary during the day as, apparently (so we were told), Americans love watching others sneak around at night from the comfort of their couches. For the most part, it was gratuitous nighttime baloney. … I promise I’ll either quit or change my position within the show because at least I can make it all make some sense. The show does get a bit better further down the road, but not a lot. … My credibility and reputation has, deservedly, taken a serious hit.”

McGee: “When we were brought onboard, the project certainly had a much harder inclination than its final realization, and as a career scientist, I was excited that NatGeo was at the helm (unaware of their desire for a major shift in programming flavor). Our intentions were very sincere. … James and I both had expectations and (for our own reasons) hopes of an ultimately serious product. We both saw the project heading in a different direction as time went on and were powerless to influence it. Injecting science into mainstream media is also problematic, and I am suffering heat in my own circles for the lack thereof on the show.”

NatGeo is offering nothing but PR spin, completely unwilling to admit that they’re putting pseudo-scientific bullshit on TV. Just another reason why I’m happy to have left ScienceBlogs after NatGeo took over.

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  • Alverant

    We’re seeing it all over. Discovery, History, Science, they’re all putting fiction into their line-up (but in Science Channel’s defense, the fiction they’re showing is Firefly). Meanwhile Syfy is showing wrestling.

  • I’ve pretty-much given up on TV. Apart from sports (and even there not entirely) it is now impossible to tell one channel from another. When BBC America shows Star Trek most of the time and all the Science-y channels seem to be dominated by ghost hunting UFOlogists wrestling with monster fish on Noah’s arc it’s the end: the end I tell you…

    Wa ha ha ha…

    This is the way the World ends,

    This is the way the World ends,

    This is the way the World ends,

    not with a bang but a reality TV show.

  • Michael Heath

    My wife and I enjoyed Cave of Forgotten Dreams last evening, which we got from Netflix. The History Channel was a financier and has TV rights. This is what these channels should be doing.

    While this documentary wasn’t a perfect film on the oldest known paintings discovered yet, as early as 32,000 year ago found in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, it had some science and the paintings themselves were awe-inspiring and sophisticated. Especially impressive was a very accurate painting of a lion’s head, horse heads, scenes which attempted to convey movement, along with a painting of a sort of Minotaur – bison head on a woman’s lower body.

    But like getting rid of my landline phone and not missing it a couple of years ago. I’m increasingly open to getting rid of cable TV. Even in this case I found this film through the Internet; you certainly can’t count on Discovery, NatGeo, or the History Channel consistently presenting serious quality content.

  • Trebuchet

    The “NatGeo” channel, it should probably be pointed out, is primarily owned by Fox. Alexander Graham Bell and Gilbert Grosvenor, the two men most responsible for making the society into a major force, must be spinning in their graves.

    As for Discovery Communications and its multitudinous channels, Foooey! Even Mythbusters is pretty much nothing but explosions and firearms these days.

  • One thing that was annoying when my brother was living on his own was when he’d visit for the holidays. He was without television in his apartment, but he’d watch when the family was under one roof. The problem was that he wanted something serious to watch, and we’d both facepalm as History and Discovery would bring out their silliest woo for the seasons. Of course, whenever I do feel like turning on the TV, it’s all loggers and fishermen on those channels.

    I need to watch more science and history shows on Netflix. It’s kind of hard to find stuff I haven’t watched before, but I could probably use some reviewing.

  • mbj1

    Ah, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I usually enjoy Herzog as a narrator; I find his director commentaries to often be better than the feature itself, but I wish that he had just turned the cave footage over to Attenborough or someone who is less full of shit.

  • bbgunn

    The final straw for me dropping cable was when I discovered that TWC’s early morning paid programming included ‘telefundie’ Joyce Meyer being broadcast on the Discovery Channel. WTF?! I thought that’s what TBN and FAUX were for.

  • Jordan Genso

    My wife and I recently got rid of cable, picking up a digital antenna that gives us NBC (we do enjoy the Olympics). The only shows from those supposed “informative” channels that I really miss is Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, and the rare new episode of The Universe.

    I’m not sure about the chronological order in which Discovery, History, and NatGeo decreased in quality, but from my perspective, it was first Discovery, NatGeo, and then History. I personally haven’t found the Science Channel’s quality to have decreased yet, but then again, I’m no longer able to see what they’re doing.

  • Paul W., OM

    “The series was really directed to all different perspectives, as embodied in the hosts — a skeptic, a believer and someone who’s undecided. If you look closely at the show, it tries to represent those three viewpoints.”

    I guess even Nat Geo has adopted the Family Feud methodology for scientific investigation.


  • The problem is, any actual science-based show on UFOs, ghosts, bigfoot, etc. is likely to be boring. There just isn’t much material to work with. Nearly all UFO sightings for which a hoax can be ruled out have prosaic and obvious explanations that just don’t make for exciting television. I’m not sure what these guys were expecting.

  • Paul W., OM

    Re: dropping cable… if you live in a decent-sized city, check out your local library’s DVD collection. You might be surprised what you can borrow for free.

    My local library system (in a mid-sized city) has an amazing selection of DVD’s—tens of thousands of titles—which you can request online and have delivered to your local branch for pickup. (Many of the titles are entire seasons of TV series.)

    I also subscribe to Netflix streaming, and what I can’t get there I can usually get from the library.

    I almost never see commercials anymore, which is wonderful.

  • I gotta echo Area Man’s objection here: this was a show about UFO’s, ferfucksake — what led Fox and McGee to expect anything other than pseudoscience and BS? (Oh, and what the hell good is a geologist in determining the origin of a UFO? Shouldn’t we be hearing from, say, a biologist, a rocket scientist, or an astronomer? What could a geologist tell us — what resources the aliens might be looking for in a praticular area?)

  • Oh look, the targeted-ad-du-jour is for NatGeo’s stock footage library. What a coincidence. How much for stock footage of science-fiction-y cookware?

  • tricycle

    I dropped cable many months ago and put up an antenna for excellent reception of all the local broadcast fare. I do have good internet so Netflix and Hulu and Vudu are regularly used for our viewing pleasures. Paying 16 – 18 dollars a month for TV, plus internet costs, is still much cheaper than cable and cable had become a serious time sink.

    Since watching more broadcast TV I have, however, been struck by the national news programs offered by the big networks. Struck dumb by how bad they’ve become.

  • If you’re looking for some good science-based programming, the BBC has a number of podcasts that would fit the bill:

    My personal favorite is “In Our Time” which recently made its entire 500+ show archive available online. There are many science related discussions to choose from, as well as subjects ranging from philosophy and literature, to history.

  • Apxeo

    Archaeologists have been battling Nat. Geo. this year as well over one of their shows (petitions, FB groups, meetings, the works). The show is “Diggers”, a reality show following two metal detectorists who loot archaeological sites. In the past National Geographic has done excellent work covering the damage caused by looting, and they have been very supportive of archaeology (grants, coverage, public education), so it was a huge shock that they were putting on something like this. They have been pretty recalcitrant in response–Basically “archaeologists need to get with the program”, “Documentaries are expensive, and sensationalistic reality TV shows are inexpensive and more profitable,” etc. One look at their line-up shows the way they are going.

    I’d like to say the degeneration is just a result of the partnership with Fox (although that certainly doesn’t help), but I think it is deeper than that. It’s a pretty opaque organization, but I suspect it is going through what many universities are going through–an “MBA-ification” of administration and management. A high point in the current Chairman’s (John Fahey) résumé is that he had an important role in founding Cinemax. There has been a definite shift from “cashflow to support the mission” to “the mission is cashflow”.

  • Sastra

    A few years ago Phil Plait, Steve Novella, and a bunch of other scientists/experts were trying to sell the pilot for a show called “The Skeptologists.” The premise was that skepticism could be fun and interesting. Look at a weird claim; investigate it; figure it out; come up with a great close — and do it in an entertaining way.

    It’s a good idea. It didn’t sell. Not yet, at any rate. The executives probably don’t want to take away the viewer’s “hope.” Plus, profit. Folks want to walk away with “yeah, maybe there’s something to it.”

  • magistramarla

    Ten years ago, when my grandson was a preschooler, he would watch Animal Planet at my house. There were excellent educational shows on at that time. He learned so much about animals, their habitats, development, etc. He also learned a lot about animal conservation and learned to respect our oceans and environment. Jack Hanna and Steve Irwin were his heroes.

    He recently came to visit me, and turned Animal Planet on. I was shocked to see that the programming is filled with things like a group of hillbillies capturing wildlife in very inhumane ways.

    Those specialty cable channels had the chance to make up for what has been lacking in our dumbed down educational system. Now, they have dumbed down themselves. What a shame!

  • wscott

    Just another reason why I’m happy to have left ScienceBlogs after NatGeo took over.

    Has SciBlogs declined in quality/rigor since the takeover? Just curious; I haven’t read it much since FTB split off.

  • caseloweraz

    Raging Bee wrote: “Gotta echo Area Man’s objection here: this was a show about UFO’s, ferfucksake — what led Fox and McGee to expect anything other than pseudoscience and BS? (Oh, and what the hell good is a geologist in determining the origin of a UFO? Shouldn’t we be hearing from, say, a biologist, a rocket scientist, or an astronomer? What could a geologist tell us — what resources the aliens might be looking for in a particular area?)”

    Certainly we should be hearing from those other kinds of scientists. But a geologist ought to be able to tell if rocks at the site had been subjected to intense heat, say, or other unusual conditions — whether there was any physical sign of a vehicle landing, in other words.

    That said, I tend to agree that those two should have been on their guard. Any scientist in such a position should negotiate an escape clause.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    Trebuchet #4

    Even Mythbusters is pretty much nothing but explosions and firearms these days.

    So the best thing on Discovery has become trashy. Why am I not surprised?

  • lofgren

    I’d drop cable but since I would still be going through the same people for internet it would hardly save me anything. Might as well keep up with Madmen.

  • Since universities are selling integrity for corporate grants, this doesn’t surprise me.

  • I have not owned a television since 2006. I was sans any sort of cable/network viewing capability until I subscribed to Netflix.

    I watched a few episodes of NG’s “science” programs. They’re fucking crap.

  • cmustewart

    I’ve been interning at a publishing company for over a year, and we have done some collaborative work with the NatGeo folks. What I gleaned from conversations was that they had to partner with Fox to get the NG channel running and distributed. Fox, I was told, has since been pushing their agenda of cheap reality TV and shlocky documentaries. They have a fair amount of power over the network and there is significant discomfort within NG about the direction the channel has taken.

  • “They have a fair amount of power over the network and there is significant discomfort within NG about the direction the channel has taken.”.

    What, they thought Ruptured Moldycock’s interests would lie somewhere other than the bottom line?

    You get in bed with a syphilitic hooker like Rupert and waking up with a “dose” is pretty much inevitable.

    I can see it now, a NG special, hosted by Bill O’Liarly:

    “Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. You can’t explain why the tide goes in.”

    complete with scientifical looking charts and stuff and comments by visiting professors from the API.

  • Speaking of present-day media lameness, here’s a slightly OT bit about a big media company deliberately punishing one of its critics:–critic-of-nbc-has-twitter-account-suspended-after-network-complains.html

    Yet another example of private enterprise freeing the public from the evils of collectivism.

  • Ichthyic

    We both saw the project heading in a different direction as time went on and were powerless to influence it.



    be honest, fuckheads. you wanted the cash.


    powerless my ass.

  • Ichthyic

    They have a fair amount of power over the network and there is significant discomfort within NG about the direction the channel has taken.

    then fucking kill it and start over.

    I’m tired of chickenshit excuses for this crap.

  • Ben McGee

    Greetings, Ed! Yes, I’m *that* Ben McGee. I realize I’m a little late to the party here, but being that it’s just been made public that Chasing UFOs isn’t being picked up for a second season, I was doing some internet searching and just discovered this post. As a freethinker myself, I thought I’d weigh in on some of the comments.

    So, with your patient indulgence (and the understanding that my hope here is to stimulate a discussion regarding getting real science into popular media), please allow me to stretch out and elaborate:

    First, straight to the meaty question: “How and why would I, as a scientist, ever involve myself in such a project?”

    People seem to forget that while hindsight is always 20-20, foresight (even with earnest effort) is not always possible. In this light, I understand how my “powerless” quote as mentioned in the comment above appears little more than a cop-out. So, in reply I’d like to begin by backing up a step.

    When I was first approached about the project, after I swallowed my knee-jerk reaction to run for the hills, I came to view it as a fantastic educational opportunity – a way to sugar-coat legitimate astronomy, planetary science, and spaceflight engineering content with the sweet allure of a persistently-popular topic. In this way, I imagined perhaps increasing social awareness of science concepts in viewers who might never tune in to watch a “Nova” or a Science Channel show.

    While most scientists shy away from even the suggestion of proximity to the word “UFO” for fear of discrediting themselves, I (particularly as an adjunct college physical science instructor) sympathize with the plight of non-scientists intrigued by what we would call a pseudoscientific topic. We (scientists) regularly disengage (or worse, condescend) when faced with popular questions about what to us is obvious pseudoscience or non-science, which only disenfranchises those who asked the questions. I would argue that in this way, the scientific establishment does itself a great disservice by not engaging laypersons who have genuine questions and curiosity about what’s going on in the cosmos.

    So, even if it meant a perilous venture into science’s dragon-invested waters (might we call it the Sea of Popular Anecdotes?), I eventually believed this was a risk worth taking – a triple-barreled opportunity – to on the one hand present real science content and illustrate the scientific process to viewers who might otherwise not be exposed to it, as well as on the other hand to provide a rational counterpoint to those who seem to point to every sky-borne light or aspect of history or physics they don’t recognize as proof of alien life, (humming “cum hoc ergo propter hoc” all the while…)

    Above all, I was hoping to combat the misconception that a prevalence of opinion or anecdote equates to justifiable, quantifiable data from which one can make a scientific conclusion.

    In any case, as convinced as I may have managed to make myself of the virtues of the project, where did it go wrong? Well, this came down to TV logistics and the economy of modern TV production, of which I was at the time hopelessly naive. First, not understanding that there is an organizational difference between National Geographic Channel and National Geographic, and because National Geographic has/had such firm credentials as a science-promoting organization, it never occurred to me that NatGeo would ever pull the show *toward* more sensationalistic, less informative content. Given the already fantastic topic, I was involuntarily counting on NatGeo to ground the project and keep one foot firmly planted in “documentary” territory, (which admittedly was my mistake).

    Further, without first filming a pilot to solicit feedback (and, importantly, preferred tone) from the network, we not only were filming somewhat blind to the show’s final format, but as a result we “overshot” the episodes to a ludicrous degree. (120-to-1, footage shot-to-used, by my calculations). We in essence actually captured multiple episodes worth of content for *each* episode. Despite the way many consider it to appear, much of what we did was actually scientific in nature and of my planning and design. So, quite plausibly, what it appeared we were creating while we were filming was much more “hard documentary” than “reality” TV. We questioned interviewees for hours, I conducted legitimate field surveys for impacted materials, or as some claimed, for the deposition of radiological material. We visited sites of scientific and educational relevance to spaceflight technology. We met with prominent scientists to discuss the scientific possibility of life in the universe. Nearly all of this content was left out.

    Based on the simple math, I always understood that it would be impossible for everything we did to make it into the episodes, but I had no way of knowing that the “running around at night” segments would end up featuring so prominently in the episodes, as they were actually only a small portion of the total content. Further, they were either an extension of a long period of daytime fieldwork (which was de-emphasized or eliminated in editing), or a dedicated night sky survey to capture a baseline library of the many shapes regular air traffic running lights might make (which was also de-emphasized or eliminated). Some sequences were presented in a different order than they were short, and others were presented without context. The logic of these sequences, in my opinion, suffered greatly as a result.

    So, when I said we were powerless to influence the show’s ultimate expression, I mean in part that the show was shot and we’d been paid for our work long before, (hundreds of miles away in a Hollywood production office), the show was put together. We who were onscreen but not hired as a “producer” were not included in editing and content discussions with NatGeo, and access to information about what was happening, based (I suspect) on a combination of proximity, legality, creative opinion, logistics, and expediency, was slim. To the point, the working title of the show, “Sightings Investigated,” wasn’t even changed to “Chasing UFOs” by NatGeo Channel until we were more than halfway through filming. (Which, to my obvious chagrin, was one of those “hints” I mentioned about the show ‘going in a different direction’ – but at the time we still had every reason to believe the show was more documentary than “reality”.) Consequently, by the time the show went through the opaque editing process and was aired, it bore little resemblance to what I thought we were producing and what we by all accounts *did* do.

    ***With all of this in mind, if anyone is interested in what a difference editing can make, please have a look at the blog series I kept on the NatGeo website, where I essentially worked to capture all of this “lost” scientific content and resurrect it in an official context. (You might even read it as “the show that might have been.”)

    So, that at least glances the “how” and “why” of how I ended up on the project …

    Regarding my background and why I was approached in the first place, (and I appreciate the guy who came to my defense in the above comments), I understand that as I was labeled, my presence doesn’t appear to make the most sense. (I was referred to either as a geoscientist or as a “radiation scientist” in the show opening sequence – a title from which I cringe because the correct terms for the field of study are either “health physicist” or ‘radiological engineer”)…

    The relevant reality here is two-fold:

    First, the show in its original proposal was a specific exploration of alleged UFO crash-sites in popular culture, at home and abroad, to look for physical evidence to either corroborate or refute the claims. Well, as an alleged surface disturbance, this is a pretty straightforward proposition and would necessarily involve searching for disturbed terrain and soil horizons, recognizing the possible depositional environments and geomorphology, and using geophysics to conduct surveys for impacted materials. Hence, use a geologist.

    Secondly, my true scientific background, apparently too complex to explain at the speed of “reality” TV, is strongly interdisciplinary. I actually started in astrophysics before I, (realizing that I enjoyed and excelled at remote scientific fieldwork), switched over to planetary geology in hopes of one day becoming an astronaut. So, to begin with, my inclinations have always been toward physical processes as they relate to a more ‘cosmic’ context.

    Professionally, I’ve worked as a senior commercial hydrogeologist and radiological engineer in harsh, remote locations for years, hence I wouldn’t be scared off by the prospect of conducting scientific investigations in Brazilian jungles or in the Rockies at -20 degrees. (Both of which occurred.)

    Academically, I’ve got a few published peer-reviewed articles and numerous conference presentations on relativistic physics (as it might affect space travel), nuclear rocketry, and the technological archaeology of our own spacecraft as artifacts – all of which with obvious relevance to the show’s topic. In fact, the development team at the show’s production company found me in the first place because I had an article published in Space Policy where I proposed rigorous scientific guidelines for “xenoarchaeology.” (This is not, as it might initially sound, to justify investigating the eye-rolling and geologically-infuriating claims of Mars “pyramids” nor to justify pseudoarchaeological claims of ET meddling with Egyptian stonework.) The article’s propositions were made with regard to the hypothetical future (and optimistically inevitable) paydirt of space exploration activities. – This paydirt, I argue, is statistically much more likely to be a “non-terrestrial artifact” than a living organism or fossil.

    So, whew. Hopefully that at least explains why I ended up there.

    All of this having been said, the obvious irony here is that in many cases without the scientific content or justifications I hoped would be included, I feel that my portrayal on the show as a possibly stubborn, condescending “it’s not aliens” robot ran counter to my original intent to combat the aloof scientist stereotype in the public eye. Moreover, the lack of science content in the show undermined my original belief that via my participation the show could be a vehicle for clandestine science education to viewers already curious, and perhaps unwittingly so, about science-related concepts (e.g., astronomy, astrobiology, space technology).

    -And that about brings us up to speed. All the wiser for the experience, I would be most interested in anyone’s critical opinion on the “science behind” blogs I authored (linked above) and/or how we might engage the curious public. I do believe a discussion regarding new or altered strategies for combating pervasive and culturally-attractive or stimulating pseudoscience is of great importance.