The sad devolution of Discovery Channel

On the hunt for TV ratings.
On the hunt for TV ratings.
Image: AP Photo/Discovery Channel, Andrew Brandy Casagrande
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Forget the recent barrage of scientists saying that Shark Week programs are misleading, even deceitful. Shark Week isn’t really about sharks—it’s about ratings. And it’s more evidence that the Discovery Channel, also home to Amish Mafiaamong other programs of questionable authenticity, has not been interested in broadcasting scientific fact for quite some time.

Discovery’s shift away from fact-based programming is part of the much larger trend of American cable channels losing their identities. For a while, it seemed like Discovery was holding onto its identity longer than most other cable channels, but the mounting backlash to recent Shark Weeks from the scientific community has made it clear—the channel’s devolution has really been happening for years right before our eyes. It’s unfortunate, but it’s understandable from a business perspective. Fake documentaries about fake mafias are the kinds of shows that Americans like to watch these days. Last year, Discovery delivered its best ratings since 2001.

Amish Mafia isn’t the only Discovery series that underscores the network’s retreat from more of an educational focus. Among the channel’s more popular shows are Fast N’ Loud, about fixing cars; Street Outlaws, about “illegal” street racing in Oklahoma; and The Devil’s Ride, about biker gangs in South California. (Apparently engine-based entertainment is a thing now.)

Last year, Discovery severed ties with the BBC, which produced the nature-themed Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, and Life. So you likely won’t be seeing shows like those on the network anymore. Discovery and the BBC had been in partnership since Discovery’s launch in 1985.

Discovery did not respond to a request to comment on this story directly. They did, however, provide Quartz with the same statement they’ve given a few times already:

For 27 years Shark Week has been the prime showcase for all things shark—science, legend and conservation concerns.  A whole generation that has grown up with shark week have awareness and issues for sharks; many marine biologists cite Shark Week as bringing them into that field.  Discovery Channel has been one of the biggest contributors to furthering shark research and have paid for technology that has been critical in the studies.