Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Discovery’s Embarrassing Embrace of Ted Nugent, And The Value of Public Broadcasting

Normally, when celebrities embarrass the networks who are about to dedicate programming hours to them, it’s something of a shock. VH1 had no idea Chad Johnson would batter his wife, Evelyn Lozada, shortly before a reality show about the couple was slated to air. And normally, when something like that takes place, the network responds quickly: VH1 cancelled “Ev and Ocho” before a single episode of it had even aired. But the Discovery Channel is in a decidedly different situation with Ted Nugent, the subject of an hour-long special called “Ted Nugent’s Gun Country” which airs on the network at 10 tonight.

Nugent, in the course of promoting the special, tossed in an accusation that the Obama administration had participated in a treasonous “criminal complicity to murder” American citizens by not upping security somewhere on September 11. If it were anyone else, Nugent’s comments might be shocking. But it’s not as if the Discovery Channel didn’t know what they were getting when the decided to collaborate with him. For a long time, Nugent’s stock in trade has been indulging the ugliest impulses that occur to him. He’s your go-to guy if, for example, you think Hillary Clinton is “a worthless bitch” and get excited to hear someone say it out loud. Discovery won’t pull the special because comments like these don’t reveal anything new or surprising about Nugent’s character, opinions, or sense of what constitutes appropriate public discourse.

What is sort of depressing is the way Discovery’s presenting the special, and Nugent, as “a strong and vocal advocate for guns, hunting and all things America.” There is not actually consensus that gun ownership or hunting are essential American pursuits. And I wasn’t aware that denigrating women in public life or engaging in violent fantasies about people you disagree with politically, both staples of Nugent’s rhetorical and on-stage arsenal, counted as “all things American.” Nugent may declare, in promotional material for the show that appears on Discovery’s website that “Our American Dream is measured in ballistics.” I’m not sure Discovery realizes how crabbed and depressing that formulation is. It would be unattractive for Discovery to work with Nugent under any circumstances, but if the network is going to do a special on him, it would be nice if they could find their way to a more limited characterization of him, unless, that is, the network finds his politics as interesting and worthy as his enthusiasm for firearms.

Programs like the Nugent special are also a reminder of why public broadcasting funding is so important. It’s not that the funding is crucial to keep shows like Sesame Street, which is a viable brand on its own in production. It’s a matter of distribution. As LeVar Burton wrote in an op-ed for CNN, “What most people don’t realize is that if federal funding for PBS were cut, much of the loss would be on the local level. The vast majority of taxpayer funds for PBS ($1.35 per person per year) goes to local stations, many of which serve rural areas, where losing funding would mean stations going dark.” Discovery is in 100 million households in the U.S. and another 314 million internationally. If PBS goes dark there, it’s not as if Discovery has an incentive to go back to its educational roots and fill the gap when its current programming slate has been so successful. It just means that viewers in those areas will have fewer options for genuinely educational programming.

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