New frontiers in corporate cynicism

Begin, if you will, with what initially sounds like an earnest question from John Fahey, Chairman and CEO of the National Geographic Society.

During a staff meeting last fall, John described the challenge of producing television shows which don’t ridicule people for the sake of entertainment:

“How do you [make TV shows] in a way
that doesn’t seem exploitative, or holding someone up to ridicule?
How do you get the balance?”

Then, consider this new show, which is a spin-off of the National Geographic series Doomsday Preppers:

Doomsday Castle

 Then, watch this spoof of Doomsday Castle — and of the Doomsday Preppers series as a whole — by the very funny folks at The Onion:

Then, on the Doomsday Castle Facebook page, see the producers laugh along with The Onion at the spoof of their own show: “It was funny.” 

Doomsday Castle Facebook
Then, notice The Onion spoof is actually “presented by” the National Geographic Channel (click image to enlarge):

The Onion and Doomesday Castle

In other words: Doomsday Preppers and Doomsday Castle is one long joke on the preppers themselves, all orchestrated by the executives at the National Geographic Channel.

Dear John,

In the audio clip (above), you challenged the National Geographic staff to consider a question which you presented like a Zen koan: “How do you [make TV shows] in a way that doesn’t seem exploitative, or holding someone up to ridicule? How do you get the balance?”

It’s easy: If you produce two TV series about preppers, then don’t pay The Onion to produce a parody that mocks and ridicules preppers.

It’s nasty and deeply dishonest to set people up as the butt of a joke, and then broadcast the joke to millions of people, while you and our “partners” at News Corp count up the profits.

This is a painfully cynical way to run a business. Our Society — and our society — deserve so much better than this.

John Fahey National Geographic


  • Guest

    Every time I hear of one of these NG Channel “reality” shows I think it cannot get any worse and then, bam, another one comes up. Just have to shake my head.

    • This time, though, it’s not the show, which is more of the same. It’s The Onion parody, underwritten by National Geographic. Given this tactic, and given what John told the staff last year, I’m not sure why he expects anyone to take him seriously.

    • James

      That is what I do when I look at any of the Scienceblogs (owned by NG now since 2009, I believe). The coverage on health topics such as autism or CCSVI are horrendously biased and industry fed (pharma). It is atrocious, not to mention the foul language and malicious behavior that is encouraged (poll crashing, hate campaigns etc.)

  • Jan Adkins

    “The fix is in. Everyone’s crooked. You’ll do anything for enough money. If you don’t do it, someone else will – you might as well get paid for doing it. Miracles don’t happen and governments are corrupt; it’s always been that way, always will be. Why complain about politics? It’s all a show. People are so dumb and lazy that it’s worthless to offer them anything of quality. Joe Six-Pack likes it dumb.”

    This is what Alexander Pope was worried about in his “Essay On Man”:

    Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
    As to be hated needs but to be seen;
    Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
    We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

    Our Devolved Geographic Society is operating on the cynical principle that its audience is so imbecilic that it will only favor bright lights, candy and scandal. This debased Society also embraces the fiction that “reality shows” are something the public desired.

    First, Joe Six-Pack is a hell of a lot smarter than the TV vice-presidents and the boardroom think. He lives in a complex world of compromised possibilities and is more aware of broader issues than his grandfather or great-grandfather. Joe has been exposed to more cultures and religions and places. He’s been relieved of much sentimental surety about faith and politics and permanence. He’s seen the world change drastically. He is trying – and this is an ongoing, difficult effort – to retain balance.

    Joe didn’t want “reality shows.” They were a function of the Writer’s Strike in the 80’s, when it was discovered that a small production company that paid only a few of its subjects could – by being in-your-face provocative – provide passable air-time for less money. The formula was so successful that “reality TV” proliferated.

    Given a chance, Joe Six-Pack could make intelligent decisions. Cleverly, his corporate government has narrowed his access to information and overview by actively restricting information, unashamed propaganda, disinformation, and even by flooding the internet with spurious data (we’re beginning to learn that much of the right-wing no-climate-change web myth has been generated by oil-paid bloggers).

    Not only does Joe’s government try to confuse his balance, but a venerable ally of education and exploration – The National Geographic Society – has surrendered its virtue to the myth of Joe’s idiocy. A Society that once addressed cutting edge technology and revealed archaeological wonders is serving up junk-food – scripted soap operas insulting their subjects and disregarding facts. These “shows” play to gullibility, lubricity and scorn. They stray as boldly across the lines of good taste as Hiram Bingham strode boldly through Inca jungles.

    The central and most damaging principle on which the Devolved Society functions is that it MUST provide such dreck programming. If it doesn’t, John and his boardroom cronies suggest, the Society could fail, lose its audience, disappear, go the way of the dodo.

    Very well, then. The National Geographic Society has had a good run, has done great work, and perhaps it should close its doors before it disgraces itself so grievously that its stellar reputation is tarnished beyond retrieval.

    Sell, off, John: the buildings and equipment – location, location, location – are worth a mint! Give up! Conclude finally that Joe Six-Pack doesn’t deserve good journalism or honest facts, tidy up your desk, and everyone goes home with a nice bonus.

    The alternative is more difficult. It will require a trip back into the Age of Reason to fetch the notion that Man Is Perfectable, that given tools of truth and skill Joe Six-Pack could see the world more clearly. It would require effort on an Herculean scale, John, and a few – ahem – shifts in policy. It might even require the dreadful admission that “after some thought and soul-searching, we’ve decided to re-direct our editorial navigation and get closer to the spirit of the Society’s founders and the giants who made it great.”

    You could be one of those giants, John. Honestly. It wouldn’t be easy! My God, the flak you’d take, and you might lose some advertisement, too. You could lose a lot. But you might regain the soul of the Society.

    • Guest

      I am with you. I don’t watch any “reality shows” and won’t watch anything on the NG Channel (unless one of those “one-offs”) even though I work at NGS. I used to be proud of my work at NG, not anymore.

      • Guest

        wow, how elitist of all of you. I’m more open minded to the world, but we all make choices. Do you not watch Wild either? Are you no longer doing good work or are you so worried about the channel you are just embarrassed? Seems you should have more faith in your own efforts.

        As for the channel, NGS decided to launch an ad-supported commercial television network for a reason – to make money. If NGS wanted a forum for its educational specials and shows, they should have never launched a network and stayed with the PBS specials. At the end of the day a cable network needs to get ratings – sometimes that means pushing the envelope.

        Guys on this society matters site like Jan and Alan are like Doomsday Preppers for the NG Brand. They are preparing for an end of civilization that will likely never happen. Even if it does, it won’t be the way they think it happens. They pick and choose examples and make large leaps in logic (NGC wasn’t top chosen cable network because of the Live Climb) to drive a sense of panic.

        I’m off to experience more of the world – and happily enjoying some of the things the debased Society puts out. Its easy to whine and complain- and really easy to quote other authors – i’ll put my efforts into more useful tasks.

        • Guest

          If you want to call me (Guest) an elitist because I expect more from NGS, then so be it. I am embarrassed by the majority of shows on the Channel. Friends shake their heads and ask what the heck is going on at NGS.

          I can understand why NGS decided to launch a cable channel. However, “pushing the envelope” is more like “dumbing down.”

          • Guest

            Then so be it – not why I called you an elitist, but if that shoe fits as well, glad you are willing to wear it. I expect more from NGS even more than I expect from NGC. Reality shows aren’t universally bad, like sitcoms, magazines, websites, books- some are good, some are bad – but to globally say you don’t watch them like they are somehow beneath you? Okay, maybe not elitist, just closed minded, but that’s even sadder.

            You don’t watch Brain Games? Not Inside Combat Rescue? Not Zeb Hogan’s show on Wild? Not Dr. Pol? Won’t watch Cosmos? Not everything is Doomsday Preppers and Drugs, inc.

            Why not talk to the channel instead of whining, but I guess that’s what most of NGS does. Take off green fridays, complain about the channel and watch their entire business go down the tube. Actually trying to reach out, take action, be proactive – no, that’s just the folks at the channel do. Everyone at NGS seems content to complain without even trying to understand.

  • C Colananni

    The Doomsday Castle guy, Brent Sr., is just some crazy real estate agent from Florida making a quick buck while the real estate market recovers. It’s a cartoon! That explains the McMansion style house. He is not the “career” infantryman as the show implies. Google Brent Bruns East Coast Premier Properties, Florida or look on Linkin:

    • “Cartoon” is a great way to describe this “reality” series. And I didn’t know that Brent Sr is a real estate salesman. Thanks for sharing the link.

    • guest

      shocker, the guy has a day job.

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