Other Fish in the Sea
by David Thiel
Look, I try not to be one of those people with holier-than-thou attitudes about television. People watch TV for all sorts of reasons: information, enlightenment, entertainment...or background noise. it's not like I go home at the end of the day and plop down on the couch for a ten-part history of the Merovingian dynasty. My DVR is set to record every new episode of E's pop-culture snark-fest The Soup.
But, but...every once in a while, a show comes along that makes me ruefully recall those days when this or that pundit or lawmaker would declaim that PBS was no longer necessary, as cable would serve our needs for news, arts, and science. This week, Animal Planet debuted its highest-rated special ever...Mermaids: The New Evidence.
I know that it was just a bit of fun, and even though the disclaimer labelling it as fiction was buried in the credits, I presume that very few people who tuned in did so because they truly believed that Animal Planet was about to offer legitimate scientific evidence of the existence of fish people. It was the televised equivalent of P.T. Barnum's Fiji Mermaid.
And again, I can't get up on my high horse for very long before someone reminds me of programs we've aired that might not fit public TV's educational remit. I'm not unaware of the decades of underwear-related humor we've offered courtesy of Are You Being Served? There should always be room for fun.
But can we agree that the cable channels that once threatened to supplant PBS have pretty much ceded the field? Animal Planet will soon air its fourth season of Finding Bigfoot, a series about a team of researchers not finding Bigfoot. The former Arts & Entertainment channel ditched that name in 1995; they're just A&E now and their biggest show is Duck Dynasty. Bravo is another channel once devoted to the arts; it's now the home of The Real Housewives of Wherever. And Discovery's schedule is loaded up with Deadliest Catch, Backyard Oil, and Pot Cops.
That's not a knock on those shows or the people who enjoy them. It's not without reason that Duck Dynasty, Real Housewives or Deadliest Catch are popular. They're well-produced television about likable (or hateable) people doing unusual things.
I just think that it's good that there's still a place for Frontline, Nova, Great Performances, and Ken Burns. And it won't cost you sixty bucks a month to get it. All you need is a TV and a wire loop.