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


Religion, ridicule & reality TV

A few weeks ago, Laura Kwerel, a producer for Interfaith Voices, interviewed me about National Geographic’s TV series Meet The Hutterites.

Our Q&A airs this week on 60+ radio stations in the United States and Canada:

The Dark Side

News item: This autumn, executives at National Geographic — John Fahey (Chairman & CEO), David Lyle (CEO of the National Geographic Channel), and Howard Owens (President of NGC) — will produce a global television “event” featuring Alex Honnold, who will attempt to free climb the side of skyscraper on live TV. The dramatic hook: Will Alex slip and fall to his death? 

From Jan Adkins

Have a drink. Oh, you’re a recovering alcoholic? Oh, come on; you know you want a drink. Have a drink. Six years sober? Good for you. That’s probably enough. Have a drink. It’s bad for you, it brings out the worst parts of your personality? That’s okay: we’re all like that, we all have dark sides. Since all of us share the dark, dark must be good. Anything’s okay if we all do it. Have a drink.

Jan Adkins

Jan Adkins

Here, kid, try some of this crack cocaine. It will make you feel weird and cool. It’s against the law? Ridiculous. Anything’s okay if we all do it. I’m bad for offering you something unhealthy and illegal? But it’s something everyone wants: look at the ratings it’s getting! Crack is obviously popular, clearly something the people want, so how can I be wrong in filling a need? Okay, so I fill the need for my own profit; isn’t that what capitalism is all about? Try a jolt of this crack. You’ll learn to love it.

Let’s go to Bedlam and make fun of the crazies. It’s wrong to amuse ourselves at the cost of someone’s dignity? Ridiculous. We all do it; how can it be wrong? Seeing people who are plainly beneath us will make us feel better, more righteous, more superior. Bad to do it for profit? Isn’t that what capitalism is all about? Appealing to our basest instincts? How can they be so bad if everyone has them. Make fun of defenseless people! Feel better about yourself! You deserve a break today!

Let’s use this empty temple as a video arcade and crack house. Good location, just up the street from the White House. It was for sale; we got it for cheap. Important, even holy services were held here? Ridiculous. That was then; this is now. No one cares about ethics or superlatives; this is the Age of Glorious Mediocrity. If some old farts practiced a religion of enlightenment and exploration, here, it couldn’t have been important. They wouldn’t have sold us the temple, would they? And who would leave greedy nihilists in charge of a holy place unless it didn’t matter? Nice building. Maybe we can sell the fixtures. Hell, maybe we can sell the inmates.

Parody of a parody

Which one is the real “reality” show?


Rupert Murdoch laughs

John Fahey National Geographic

(For more parodies from WNET Thirteen, see this.)

It’s funny because it’s true

Remember back in November when David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel, appeared at an international conference for documentary producers, and went head-to-head with John Wilson, a Senior Vice President at PBS? It was a breathtaking moment: National Geographic, which once proudly showcased its award-winning documentaries on PBS, was presented as the counterpoint to PBS in a Low Road vs. High Road debate.

Evidently, the folks at PBS think this distinction is worth emphasizing (and I’m afraid they’re right):

For more details, see this

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do

Then again, maybe they do know.
{ How can they not? }


Jenny Daly, president of T Group (quoted above), includes the following TV shows on her production credits: “Fashionista Diaries” for Soapnet, “Night Club Confessions” for Fox Reality and “Pageant Mom’s Unleashed” for E! Entertainment.  Also: “Love is in the Heir”, “Fight For Fame”, “Last Bride Standing”, “Starveillance,” “Diary of an Affair,” “Fake-A-Date,” “Friend or Foe,” and “Party Crashers.”

Given that resumé, Ms. Daly seems like the obvious choice to handle a six-part National Geographic series about faith-based communities.


How many people of faith will these four men
be able to offend in six hours?
Stay tuned…

Mike Parfit: “It’s a cynical pursuit of financial stability.”


Posted at The Missoulian on May 2,2013.
Read the whole story by reporter Rob Chaney here.

Orwell’s World


Read the whole thing here.


In related news: David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel, still has not responded to the Hutterites’ plea for help.

David Lyle, CEO of the National Geographic Channel

David Lyle

How to avoid making “exploitative” TV

Attorney Jeffrey Sveen
(for non-Flash version of this interview, please see below)

TO: John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society
RE: The Old Believers “docu-series”

At an all-hands staff meeting in September 2012, you asked a vital question: When making a National Geographic TV series about a “subculture of a subculture of a subculture,” how do you find the proper “balance” and avoid making “exploitative” TV?

Here’s one simple way: Treat the people in our TV shows with respect. Approach them as partners and collaborators, not as entertainment assets. Be decent. Be transparent. Share. These people are trusting our Society to tell their stories to the world, and for that we owe them far more than just a paycheck.

Old Believer church in Nikolaevsk, Alaska

Old Believer church in Nikolaevsk, Alaska

Consider, for example, a new National Geographic “docu-series” that’s about to begin shooting in Nikolaevsk, Alaska. The show focuses on a community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers, many of whom are now being recruited to appear in the series. Are we approaching them as creative partners? Are we offering them firm guarantees that we will produce a show that’s “balanced” and avoids “exploitation”? People in Alaska are wondering….

A few days ago, one resident of Nikolaevsk sent me an unsolicited copy of the “talent services agreement,” a 14-page legal contract that the “artists” must sign if they want to participate — and to get paid. This resident also asked me a question: What does this 14-page document say? What exactly do we get by participating — and what are we signing away?

Jeffrey Sveen

Jeffrey Sveen

I’m not a lawyer, so I sent the contract to Jeffrey Sveen. He’s the attorney who represents the Hutterites in their on-going attempt to persuade our Society to make right what went horribly wrong with National Geographic’s Meet The Hutterites reality series. Mr. Sveen generously agreed to review the contract, and to translate the legalese into plain English.

Listen to Mr. Sveen’s analysis and it’s hard to shake the feeling that even before the producers unpack their cameras, our show is already out of “balance.” In short, the contract seems to say to the people of Nikolaevsk: We agree to give you a paycheck to participate, but beyond that, we promise you nothing at all. 

What do you think, John? If you want to avoid an “exploitative” TV show about a “subculture of a subculture of a subculture,” is this a good way to begin?


“Talent services agreement” for Old Believers TV series

Dear John: Our Society faces a serious problem in Alaska, and we need your help.


 Read the whole thing here.

John Fahey National Geographic


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