It's the sort of weapon you'd expect to see wielded with glee in a Dawn of the Dead remake, not on the flagship network of a media behemoth claiming a science-educational mission. But such is the state of programming these days on the Discovery Channel, long overdue for an honest update of its tagline, "Science, History, Space, Tech, Sharks, News!"
It is admittedly quaint to say in 2012 that a billion-dollar cable corporation has failed to live up to its stated values, and we're at least several decades past debating whether television can become the productive social force some imagined during the medium's infancy. Indeed, Discovery's devolution was notable a full decade ago, when the science journalist Chris Mooney penned an op-ed for the Washington Post bemoaning its programming turn away from science documentaries and toward the paranormal, the sensational, and the idiotic. Discovery Communications, noted Mooney, touted its goal of helping young viewers "critically analyze" information even as its properties such as Animal Planet increasingly aired fare like The Pet Psychic. A spokeswoman for the company claimed at the time that such shows represented a "whimsical take" on the company's science mission.
The Pet Psychic is A Brief History of Time compared to many of the shows now airing on the channel. In recent years Discovery has joined other companies in its former documentary niche in largely abandoning in-depth science programming in favor of its antipode, what might best be called anti-science: shows that glorify stupidity and celebrate a giggling, Beavis and Butthead-style pleasure in blowing stuff up and killing things.
Discovery is not filling a munitions void here so much as chasing the lowest common ratings denominator; The Outdoor Network and The History Channel first pioneered programming for the demo Nugent calls "gun nuts." But Discovery has gone furthest down the rabbit-hunting hole. Among the channel's slew of reality shows are three and counting devoted to portraying the patriotic fun to be had with high-caliber automatic weapons: American Guns, Sons of Guns, and the special ( or is it pilot?) that aired last week, Ted Nugent's Gun Country, which officially pushes the phenomenon beyond the reach of parody. It is as if ESPN began airing a show called Frog Baseball Tonight.
In Discovery's growing universe of reality show gun porn the real stars are the automatic pistols and assault rifles, weapons which share the double honor of being at the center of both numerous recent gun massacres and the gun industry's ongoing sales boom. The kinds of high-caliber, high-round combinations featured on these shows rarely have anything to do with hunting or personal defense. They are the stuff of survivalism, militias, and mass-killings. And they are commercially available due in part to the dubiously earned political clout of the National Rifle Association. The organization expends millions subverting and blocking all attempts to discuss common-sense gun violence prevention and has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.