How Committed is Discovery to No Fakes?: Reality Bites Part IV

By Christie Wilcox | June 24, 2016 8:00 am

This is the fourth and final installment of my four-part series on the Discovery Channel show Venom Hunters. In Parts I, II and III, I explain how the show started from a flawed premise, and went downhill from there, seemingly including breaking laws and staging scenes. In Part IV, I explain why it matters that Discovery Channel and Authentic Entertainment are held accountable.

In May, Discovery made the official decision not to continue Venom Hunters into a second season. Even though the show won’t go on, it’s important to still reflect upon the legacy of the short six-episode series, especially with Discovery’s annual Shark Week kicking off on Sunday.

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Not surprisingly, though the professional venom community almost universally condemns how their field is portrayed in Venom Hunters, they are more mixed in their feelings about the show’s ultimate impacts.  “I do see some positives to it,” Nathaniel Frank told me when I asked him for his opinion, “but I also see a lot of negatives.” In particular, he was put off by the way the show implied venoms are field-collected. “There’s people now that think they can grab a dirty wine glass with a ziploc bag tied over the top of it and go out on their property and extract from a bunch of copperheads and make a hundred grand, and that’s just not how it works.”

“I personally think—and I told Mr. Barcyzk this—I think it’s absolutely insulting.”

Many, including Jim Harrison, believe that by making venom sales sound like an exciting way to get rich, the show is not just inaccurate—it’s downright dangerous. Already, the Kentucky Reptile Zoo is receiving three times the normal volume of calls and emails from amateurs hoping to get rich milking snakes. The fear is that people with no venomous reptile expertise (let alone permits) will see Venom Hunters and suddenly decide they, too, can help save the world by catching and milking snakes. The end result of a sudden rush to capture rattlesnakes and other native species will almost certainly be bad for all species involved—more people trying to catch snakes will undoubtedly mean more people getting bitten, and their lack of handling and husbandry skills will likely lead to unnecessary harassment and even deaths of snakes.

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Jim’s fears come to life.

Authentic Entertainment stands behind the show, saying “Our goal was to present a unique occupation in a way that informs the audience of the importance of their work in a compelling, entertaining manner. We believe that we succeeded in this endeavor, we stand by the work and we are proud of the series we produced for Discovery Channel.”

I was particularly interested in talking to Brian Barczyk about his involvement with the show, given that he was so critical of past Discovery programs. He wasn’t at Venom Week, but I caught up with him over the phone while I was there—though Discovery ensured that a PR representative was also on the line.

Brian readily acknowledged that the way the show portrayed venom production was flawed. “I don’t like that sometimes we have to sensationalize how deadly things are and how dangerous things are… I think in a perfect world we’d pull back on that. I realize why it has to be that way. We have to hook people that are not snake people, that are not reptile people. There has to be an element of why they watch the show. Then, we can deliver the message that, I hope, is eventually getting out, which is the importance of these animals.”

“If I had my wishes, which again, I don’t run the network, I would love to be in Sri Lanka, India, South Africa… really highlighting those issues where there is a massive venom shortage. Where there are people that need to be saved.”

Despite that, he said he was happy with the end result. “Sure, I’m not going to sit here and tell you I wouldn’t love there to be a PBS show about this that was much more educational only-based. I always say that if you have a great message and nobody watches or nobody listens, your message hasn’t affected very many people… Hopefully, that message that I care about is being portrayed the best it can.”

Brian’s Facebook post after the announcement that the show was not renewed for season two echoed these sentiments:

Sure there were plenty of things that could have been better, less sensational and even more “real”. The truth is I could not be more happy to have been on a show on Discovery channel. Some people think they are a terrible network, but my experience with them was fantastic. They treated me great and listened to everything concern I had, and did their best to remedy what they could. In the end they still have to get ratings, and unfortunately we fell short. Sure some of the other cast feels the right thing to do is blame others, or throw some of the cast under the bus like their part was fantastic and others were “lies”. The honest truth is all TV is a lie and things are manufactured for entertainment.

In his conversation with me, Brian also made sure to acknowledge the venom experts that remained off-screen. “The venom community, scientists, labs—they’re the real, true heroes. They’re the ones that deserve the accolades,” he said. And he even gets the negative response from the venom science community. “I understand the backlash. I get it. I really do. You guys have went to years and years of school and I’m just some jack off who likes to catch snakes. I would never, ever, in a million years try to say that I’m on your level of knowing what’s going on. I respect you. I respect the people like you that have dedicated your life to this research. I’m just a guy that’s trying to get people to understand how important these are.”

“I want you and everyone else that would read your article to understand how much I know that the majority, if not all of the cast, really appreciate the people that are in the trenches that deserve the accolades. I hope they understand what we are trying to do. I can literally speak for the vast majority of the cast by saying we’ve had tons and tons and tons of conversations about the fact that if this gets the message out about the things that we’re passionate about it’s worth some of the backlash that we’ve gotten here and there for some of the things.”

“Van Horn and Carl and Jim Harrison—These guys aren’t driving Bentleys. They’re not making millions of dollars doing venom, they’re doing it because they believe it. Those guys, Bill Haast and those type of guys, those are my legends, for sure.”

It was abundantly clear to me that Brian truly believes in the show, and at his core, trusts that it will change the world for the better. But I think he has an overly optimistic view of the show’s impacts. For example, he told me: “Hopefully, my hopes are, is that maybe a scientist is going to get a grant because they see the show on Discovery. They can do research for pain medicine or Alzheimers or Parkinson’s or heart disease. Maybe someone will actually get a grant from the exposure that we get.” He even repeated the idea several weeks later on his AnimalBytes podcast: “Now when somebody goes and fills out a grant… someone’s going to go ‘yeah I saw that on Discovery Channel, that’s really interesting.’ Prior, they’d be like ‘What, what are you talking about, why would you want to research venom—I’m not giving you any money.'”

But thinking that a TV show is going to make it rain for scientists reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of science funding. Granting agency funding decisions are based on the soundness of the science proposed, the potential public health impacts, and the theoretical importance of the work—not whether they’re familiar with something because they saw it on a Discovery Channel series. The people making NIH or NSF funding decisions are far more well-versed in the science of venoms and human health than the average Discovery Channel viewer, thus the brief overview of venom medical importance or antivenom science given on the show is already common knowledge to them. And even if they aren’t familiar with a particular idea, they understand the field of science they’re reviewing well enough to evaluate proposals on scientific merit, not familiarity. And clearly, the funding agencies already know that venom is worth studying; the show wouldn’t have had studies to talk about if, as Brian implied, venom researchers were perpetually unable to get funding because their work was unfamiliar. So while I appreciate Brian’s desire to help the scientists, it’s doubtful the show has made their jobs any easier—if anything, it may have made them a little harder, as they are now fielding a flood of inquiries from Discovery viewers about how much the scientists will pay for the snakes they have in their backyards.

The show didn’t change the field of venom science, but it could have changed how some viewers see the animals involved, and such impacts should be acknowledged. If the show truly convinced a large number of people that otherwise might have hated or killed snakes that these animals are vital members of our planet’s ecosystems and deserve our protection and respect, then those impacts do matter. But we could argue all day what message the majority of the audience received—whether, as Brian hopes, it was one of conservation and wonder, or as Jim fears, it was that catching and milking rattlesnakes is cool and lucrative. A quick Facebook search for the show gives evidence to both arguments.

I think arguing whether the show has done more harm than good misses the bigger point. What concerns me is that Discovery is still up to their old tricks, and they’re undermining everything they’ve done in the past year to clean up their image.

I’m pissed that Authentic Entertainment and Discovery pursued a show that they were told was flawed from the get-go, and I’m disturbed that they fabricated “facts” and storylines and may have even broken laws while putting the lives and reputations of their cast and crew at risk to make such a program.

The way I see it, even if the show successfully sells a positive message about snakes, it only does so because of what appear to be misrepresentations, fraud, and lies. Saying “well maybe people will be a little nicer to snakes” cannot be used to excuse unethical behavior on the part of Authentic Entertainment and Discovery. I fail to see how Venom Hunters doesn’t fall under the category Brian so accurately placed Eaten Alive in, that of “garbage sensational shows” which networks “feed us the line that they are based in conservation.”

Yes, Venom Hunters is “just TV.” But do we care so little for the truth that it no longer matters to us what gets labeled as non-fiction? Do we not hold Discovery Channel documentaries to higher standards than The Real Housewives? Have we really decided that our “entertainment” is more important than producing ethical, legal, and accurate series? If production companies and networks are not held responsible when they cross lines, then what incentive do they have not to cross them again?

And I do blame the network as much as the production company. Discovery doesn’t get off the hook by saying they didn’t know what was going on. They get bids from different companies, and chose to go with Authentic’s version of the show. Further, in emails obtained by me, a producer specifically stated how Discovery’s demands drove the production company into dangerous territory. When the producer was told that the show’s tight schedule would make it impossible to obtain permits in time and find the snakes desired without relying on staging scenes, they lamented: “I have no choice. We are freelance, work­-for-­hire individuals, not the decision makers at the cable network. It was produce the show with a shoot period of July and August (8 weeks in US, 3 weeks in Australia) or they would find someone else that does.”

It was this kind of flagrant disregard for reality that led Discovery down the dark path to airing Megalodon, and this kind of loose interpretation of safety for both people and animal stars that allowed Eaten Alive to even be conceived. Venom Hunters embodies everything that was broken about Discovery before the supposed revamp—everything that Rich Ross swore he’d fix.

Maybe I was naive to believe that the company really wanted to turn things around. Or maybe, they just don’t think they can. Maybe they really believe that they have to make things up to get enough viewers to get a positive message about wildlife across. Venom Hunters may be Discovery yet again putting profit above principles, but I’m more worried that this is about more than the money. I’m worried that they actually believe this is the only way to convince people to care about nature. I’m worried that this is them trying.

I heard it over and over again when talking to Brian. “I don’t like that sometimes we have to sensationalize how deadly things are and how dangerous things are,” he said. Have to, like the hyperbole was unavoidable. “This is the only way we can teach people now.” “TV is going to be TV.” “There has to be an element of why they watch the show. Then, we can deliver the message.”

But when I look at the success of shows like Planet Earth, it seems obvious to me that the real world is more than entertaining enough for Discovery’s viewers. If Discovery wants to make a program that creates a sense of awe and wonder about snakes, why not actually make a show about the awe and wonder of snakes? Why does it need to be dressed up with a handlebar mustache and some scripted drama? If Discovery wants to show how deadly venoms can be used to heal, why not film scientific research? They could have—if they had been willing to let go of their preconceived, inaccurate premise. And if they want to make a show about how the lethal and yet potentially lifesaving venoms are produced for that research, then why create an entirely false narrative about how that venom is collected?

There are so many incredible stories related to snakebites waiting to be told. There are the stories of the people struggling to survive after a viper’s venom reduces a leg to ash, or after the loss of a parent to the quick-acting paralytics of a cobra. There are the stories of communities that have found ways to live in harmony with the deadliest serpents, turning foes into friends. Or there are stories of scientists in impoverished nations fighting against the world’s real killer snakes—the ones that, unlike any of the species depicted on the show, are responsible for those 100,000 deaths which Venom Hunters kept using for dramatic effect. The sheer audacity of Authentic Entertainment to imply that their cartoon cast members playing with rattlesnakes are somehow helping solve the very real problem of snakebite worldwide is not just mind blowing, it’s infuriating. The way they use lives lost overseas in places like India and Africa to justify flawed, faked, and ostensibly felonious footage is so slimy that it makes me feel ill just thinking about it.

When did educational, enlightening, and inspirational messages get written off as so boring that they need to be buried? When did the lives—and deaths—of real people stop being dramatic enough for TV? Because I thought, I really believed, that when Rich Ross said no more fakes, he was making a statement. He was saying that this planet and its inhabitants are entertaining enough without frills or forgery. And I still believe that that is true. I know that I am not alone in wanting my non-fiction shows to rely on the real, everyday drama of this world rather than some producer’s imagination. And I believe that those shows, stripped of the falsehoods and fabrication, would captivate more than enough people to meet Discovery’s bottom line. If only the company could trust that the animals and people in their shows are intrinsically interesting. If only they had enough faith in the real world to believe it worthy of television.

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  • Matthew Slyfield

    “When did educational, enlightening, and inspirational messages get written off as so boring that they need to be buried?”

    When PBS was created as a tax funded network. This was a tacit acknowledgement that there aren’t enough people who want to watch pure “educational, enlightening, and inspirational” for such programing to be produced by a for profit network.

    • Explorer51

      That’s actually incorrect; PBS was founded in the late ’60’s whereas the now well-known “factual” (I’m being kind) networks were much later: Discovery began in 1985, History Channel in 1995, National Geographic Channel in 2001, to name a few. In fact, John Hendricks created Discovery because he was inspired by the success of documentaries on Public TV and thought the expanding availability of cable would support a 24 hr a day commercial non-fiction channel. And in 2016, PBS still reaches more people each month than any of those cable networks.

      It’s only in the last 10-15 years that these “factual” channels have veered into reality programming and sensationalism because they are going after younger and younger viewers, because it’s more lucrative.

      • Mechwarrior

        It’s also a lot cheaper to film a few idiots with nightvision cameras stumbling around in the woods for a few hours than to send a team of professionals out to film the life cycle of a family of ospreys.

        • John C

          Even better, save on the night vision equipment and just film them during the day with no clothes on.

        • Explorer51

          Yes, plus the former example is scripted and the latter is not.

          • Mechwarrior

            Indeed.

            You know, I’m not even sure I can recall the last time that Animal Planet even produced a show (as opposed to simply airing a BBC production) that was about animals instead of people who work with animals or (more frequently) people who do something that sort of involves animals or people who don’t do anything related to animals at all.

            Actually, I would even watch Tanked if they’d stick to showing how they make and set up all the crazy custom aquariums instead of devoting so much to the obviously scripted stupid pranks.

            I can’t help but wonder what Marlin Perkins would say about all this.

      • Matthew Slyfield

        “John Hendricks created Discovery because he was inspired by the success
        of documentaries on Public TV and thought the expanding availability of
        cable would support a 24 hr a day commercial non-fiction channel.”

        And he was wrong. If that sort of programing was profitable the broadcast networks would have been doing at least some programming like that already.

        History works, because there is plenty of history that is dramatic, spectacular or salacious.

        “It’s only in the last 10-15 years that these “factual” channels have veered into reality programming and sensationalism”

        In other words, it took Discovery 15 years to figure out that what they were doing was never going to be profitable enough to support 24/7 programming.

        • Explorer51

          Niche cable channels have a very different business model than broadcast networks; if you did a little research you’ll find most of them, especially Discovery, became quite profitable within their first few years and have never looked back.

  • John C

    In the old days people loved when the traveling circus came to town, especially the freak show tent. These “reality” shows are the low brow modern day equivalent of the old fashioned low brow side show.

  • OWilson

    I share your outrage at what they portray as professionalism in “Nature” entertainment presentations.

    All manner of cruelty is used in the chasing, catching, sedating, tagging and release of species. The Canada Geese story is legendary, as is the poor turtle they put a magnet on to disorient it. It swam 1000’s of miles in circles trying to find it’s home beach.

    And don’t even ask about atrocities behind the scenes of the old TV shows like Disney, and Wild Kingdom :)

    You wouldn’t even believe what liberal and green Hollywood did to animals, (not to mention Judy Garland :)

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Hawaii. She freelances for major media outlets including The New York Times and Popular Science. Her debut book, Venomous, releases August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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