Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gamma what?

It didn’t really hit me how out of hand this whole educational-television thing seemed to be getting until a short while ago, fresh off of his DVDs of The History Channel’s The Universe series, my grandfather was handing the set to my uncle to borrow when he fired off (quite seriously), something to the effect of “I’ll tell ya, I sure hope we never get hit with a gamma burst. “ After which he proceeded to explain exactly what that was, and why it would inevitably kill us all. I’m sure you’ve all experienced this, as e-TV has increasingly made average-joes (and average-grandpas) across the country experts on subjects no one ever thought or cared to know about. Information that they can then spring on unsuspecting family members or strangers at restaurants in a “Did you know…”-like fashion.

I mean, The Discovery Channel and The History Channel have been around for a while, but it seems like in the past decade there has been an explosion of both new educational shows and networks, as well as people who watch them. Since he’s got a TiVo, my grandpa has moved above and beyond his usual repertoire of Perry Mason and The Price is Right to include shows like Dr. G Medical Examiner, Nova, and a keyword folder called HITLER that’s usually got about 18 different WWII-related specials in it just waiting to be watched (as well as a few random episodes of shows that just happen to have Hitler in the description). I’m beginning to think that my grandpa is getting more from his $50-or-so of DirecTV per month than I do from thousands of dollars worth of college education. Granted, my education might, say, give me the qualifications to start a career, and his on the other hand, for he and I to carry on a lengthy conversation about something like the fate of the planet after humans are wiped out.

Now, I’m not claiming to be immune to this, by any means. I will stop what I’m doing and sit in front of the television for as long as possible to watch a marathon of How It’s Made (I seriously want that announcer guy to just talk me to sleep every night). I hesitate to admit that I’ve seen so many episodes of this show, that more than once I’ve uttered the phrase “Oh, I’ve already seen this one.” And consequently, I can rattle off useless facts like, why aluminum foil has a dull side and a shiny side, or explain how they assemble a catamaran. This show has been on thirteen seasons, mind you. There are enough people that care to observe the 17-step process of making roofing shingles that they’ve cranked out 160+ episodes of it.

While I’m confessing, I also admit to being helpless when it comes to:

a. a new one, Life After People
Deadliest Catch
MythBusters—but seriously, who isn’t?
the Investigation Discovery Channel (I watched a fascinating special called Psychology of a Suicide Bomber, and now I’m hooked.)

Now let’s talk about e-TV success for a moment; do any of you remember that whole Planet Earth frenzy a year or so ago? As one who worked at a certain warehouse club at the time, I still can’t believe how many people purchased those DVDs (well maybe I can, since it was due in part to God…er…Oprah selecting it as one of her “favorite things”). I believe I have several family members, including my grandfather, who now own that exact set. And the series was such a hit, it was translated into a feature film called Earth, released in 2007, and the same production team is working on a follow-up series entitled The Frozen Planet due in 2012. So even though “four years in the making, it was the most expensive nature documentary series ever commissioned by the BBC,” it then became a movie, and now they're making another show. Just let that sink in for a moment.

Also, maybe it’s just me, but I think half of how they pull you in with these shows is a. the titles (I mean, who can resist something called Suicide Bombers: Cult of Death or MonsterQuest?) and b. the epic commercials showing you what you’ll see in said programs—like those for Life After People—following which, how could I not tune in to see how many thousands of years it would take after the elimination of all mankind for the Statue of Liberty to start falling apart? And sometimes, just sometimes, you see these irresistible commercials on other non-related channels. I believe I first saw the advertisement for LAP while waiting for the show to start at the local movie theater.

I guess when it comes down to it, even though shows like these just fill us with more useless information—besides things like what happened last time on Days of Our Lives—it’s quite comforting there are so many educational (or let’s be accurate, semi-educational) shows out there to help counteract the onslaught of such gems as Keeping Up With the Kardashians and New York… [insert new means of blatantly capitalizing on laughable amount of celebrity here]. And quite honestly, I really do enjoy most of the educational programming this country has to offer. Plus, if it’s gonna be mush anyway, I want my TV-addled brain to know just how they put together those nifty gumball machines, and whether or not a hurricane can blow a piece of straw through a tree.

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