A month ago, the Discovery Channel promised a new journey into the world of the gratuitously grotesque: A man was going to wade into the Amazon, douse himself in pig’s blood, and get eaten alive by a giant anaconda. Several media outlets, Slate included, were more horrified than impressed. When the episode aired Sunday night, those who eagerly tuned in were treated to their own dose of outrage when they found out they’d been duped. Nobody got eaten alive on Eaten Alive. (Sorry if that was a spoiler.)
The reaction on social media, as noted by Business Insider, was snarky and swift. People felt misled—and rightfully so. As it turned out, stuntman Paul Rosolie had to stop the encounter with the snake due to the crushing pain he felt as the anaconda ingested his arm—he feared it might break. Rosolie, a naturalist, told AFP the stunt was meant to harness shock value to raise people’s concern about the rainforests. And to its credit, Discovery did link to a fund for protection and research of the Amazon rainforest. But people tuning in hadn’t seen a word about conservation in the ads promoting the show, or even seen video clips of creatures losing their habitat. They were promised one thing: A guy getting swallowed by a giant snake. And their disappointment definitely doesn’t help the rainforest.
This stunt and the deceptive campaign were no accident: Eaten Alive is one more entry into a collection of disappointing Discovery programming that capitalizes on sensationalism and misinformation. There are obvious dangers to misleading the public on science, and Discovery has a disturbing history of, for instance, claiming that extinct giant sharks aren’t extinct. But however misleading those shows were, at least they misled in the way their titles promised. Now Discovery has made a step into another irritating territory—clickbait.
The essential ingredients for clickbait are all there: Misleading title? Check. Disappointing content? Check. Frustrated audience? Double check.
A lot of people were hate-watching Eaten Alive the way they might watch so-bad-it’s-bad Sharknado. But I have very little pity for people who wasted two hours staring at their televisions with bated breath, waiting for a perversely voyeuristic climax that never arrived. I actually think it’s pretty funny. But I worry what this says about supposed “documentary” television. The one thing Eaten Alive had going for it in the first place was that it was supposedly real. But since when does an incomplete stunt go anywhere but the cutting room floor? I am glad Rosolie was concerned enough about the danger to call it off. But this wasn’t filmed live—why did it air? Discovery could have cut its losses. But the company ran with it, and found a new low in shock value programming: A great teaser is enough, and quality content—or even complete content—is simply optional.
Hopefully the social media furor from those who endorsed the show with their viewership will at least dissuade Discovery and other channels like it from doing this kind of thing in the future. I’d hate to see March of the Penguins: The Sequel 30 years from now, only to sit through two hours worth of searching the Antarctic for some penguins.