Last night, The History Channel aired a two-hour special entitled Breaking History: Bigfoot Captured, a title presumably chosen because it directly refers to the mission of said program in breaking any conceivable perception that a network like History Channel might possibly air programs about, oh I don’t know, history.
Let’s say, for a second, in a purely hypothetical scenario, that I was made the supreme overseer of Hell, the realm of eternal punishment and suffering. In Jim’s new and revised Hell dimension, there would be a level devoted entirely to television producers who conceived and aired content in the style of Bigfoot Captured. There, surrounded by the wailing voices of 10,000 History Channel, Animal Planet and Discovery Channel executives, you would find the crews behind Mermaids: The Body Found, Megalodon: The New Evidence and others, sharing a cozy abode in the lake of fire. That’s my dream scenario.
Of course, in the real world, I suppose I would settle for everyone involved to simply be fired. And possibly put into a pillory and pelted with rotten vegetables, time permitting.
These shows, examples of so-called “docu-tainment” that have become commonplace (and huge ratings successes) on networks that have educational aims in their mission statements, are indicative of everything that is wrong in 21st century media. The fact that you have networks such as History Channel, Discovery and Animal Planet willfully and consciously planting falsehoods into the minds of their audience is absolutely shameful. There’s no other word for it. The people involved should be ashamed of themselves, because they are causing very real, literal harm. They’re actively performing the polemic opposite of their network’s stated function. I see no difference between this and learning that a grade school teacher is teaching your kid that we live in a Geocentric universe.
Your response to this outrage is probably to say “Oh come on, Jim, it’s entertainment. People know the sasquatch documentary they’re watching on History Channel is just entertainment. What’s the harm?”
The problem is that no, not everyone knows it’s entertainment. And if you’re intelligent enough to know that, then you should also realize that it’s the impressionable people watching who most need a source they can actually trust in order to provide real information. These people don’t need entertainment. They need a network that’s actually serving their best interest—and for the record, their best interest is “Not having pseudoscientific beliefs that they’ll pass on to anyone in earshot.”
Still don’t believe that anyone takes a program like Bigfoot Captured seriously? Okay, let me just go check Twitter for 30 seconds, hold on…
Those are all real tweets from real human beings that rolled in during the last half hour as I was sitting down to start writing this thing. Whether or not you want to admit it, or whether History Channel wants to admit it, these sentiments are indicative of at least a fair chunk of their audience. They have a responsibility to not mislead these human beings. It is their JOB to not allow people to believe this bullshit.
This is the responsibility that History Channel claims it's upholding when a two-hour long program is preceded by a disclaimer on screen for a few seconds saying that the program features “some dramatization.” At least, that's what I'm told appeared, because I started watching 60 seconds after the program began. For me, and anyone else who joined at any other point during that ludicrous 120 minute runtime, there was zero other indication that you were seeing anything other than an (admittedly shitty) documentary. Not until the end credits, with its clear listing of actors in the “scripted story” segments, do they come close to admitting what you've been watching that whole time. Good thing that American audiences always closely monitor TV credits, right?
Bigfoot Captured takes the form of a fake, feature-length documentary about a researcher traveling the globe in hopes of finding this cryptozoological specimen. This main character, as if this needs to be said, is a fictional person played by an actor. The result: Scenes of actors playing researchers, interviewing other actors playing witnesses. It's essentially a Russian nesting doll of bullshit. None of this is new, and has been the common practice in all the other fictional documentaries such as Mermaids: The Body Found, where you can literally look up the actors' names on IMDB.
Where Bigfoot Captured diverges, though, is in the rather insidious use of actual people alongside the fake characters. Idaho State University professor Jeffrey Meldrum, for instance, is extensively interviewed and featured; a real university professor and expert in human locomotion who has also studied Sasquatch reports. I found myself wondering: Can this man possibly have known what kind of TV program Bigfoot Captured was actually going to be? Did they lie to him, making him think they were conducting an actual documentary about bigfoot sightings? Or did they simply pay this guy, a college professor, enough to participate in a fake documentary knowing full well that it was going to end with five minutes of a CGI Sasquatch in a cage? Because if it's the latter, then that is a massive betrayal of a professor's charge to educate. If Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum knew what kind of program Bigfoot Captured was, then he should be summarily fired from his teaching position for failing an educator's version of the Hippocratic Oath. This is a man who has spoken out against Bigfoot hoaxers in the past, and yet here he now is participating happily in a fake documentary, purposely spreading misinformation. I wonder if I could get him on the phone to explain himself if I called Idaho State University often enough.
UPDATE: Dr. Meldrum has posted to Facebook essentially denouncing the production. It seems clear he had no idea what he was getting into. Hilarious.
This style of BS programming has now been refined into a science of its own. The narrative elements are careful in going out of their way to not “tell you what to believe,” or at least not directly. Instead, they present you with mounds of fake evidence and rely on the impressionable viewer to “come to their own conclusion.” Ignorant, close-minded skeptic characters are used as straw men to shoot down any potential arguments before they're raised. It all taps into the same desire that fuels conspiracy theorists in general—the desire to be a possessor of secret knowledge, to feel intelligent. The History Channel execs understand that the more ignorant portions of their audience desperately want to feel like they belong to a fraternity of people with knowledge that “they” (whoever the hell 'they' are in this scenario) DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW. Perhaps they already believe these sorts of things—in that case, Bigfoot Captured simply triggers their confirmation bias.
Consider this Möbius strip of hypocrisy. In order to be on History Channel in the first place, the program has to make some sort of claim toward veracity—hence, the fake documentary format. Simultaneously, in order to not be called charlatans, the official position of History Channel has to be “people are just watching to be entertained, no one is taking this seriously.” SIMULTANEOUSLY, the show has to be believable enough to still fool people, because if it didn't, no one would be watching. Just writing that makes my brain want to gnaw its way out of my skull, seeking sweet freedom.
It all culminates in sequences that are, thankfully, so unabashedly ridiculous and SyFy Original Movie-esque that they hopefully would have dissuaded at least some of the potentially duped viewers from believing what they're seeing. I'd like to believe that the sequences of researchers being chased through the woods, pelted with boulders and inserted into what almost feels like a Sasquatch snuff film would be enough to make this clear, but then I just scroll up and re-read those earlier tweets.
Now, the fact that the special also pissed off some Sasquatch true believers, I don't even know how to feel about that. Welcome … ummm, allies? I think?
In the end, the captured Sasquatch of course escapes, although it unfolds in a sequence where it feels like the FX budget had been completely tapped out, so last-minute scenes were added in the 30 minutes before all the video equipment was repossessed. I shit you not, the phrase “I don’t think you locked the cage!” is actually uttered. As in, the Bigfoot escapes because the scientists who just tracked him for 10 days didn’t remember to lock his cage before they went to sleep. Unfortunately, it ends before we get to see them put up flyers on the nearby redwoods reading “Lost: One Sasquatch. Answers to ‘Urrrrrrggghaaaa’”.
Is this just the new normal, the standard we should be expecting from a network running commercials during that same programming block for Nostradamus prophecies and a new “Hitler in Argentina” series? At least ABC Family had the guts to admit their own “channel drift” phenomenon by announcing plans to change the name to “ABC Freeform.”
Congratulations, History Channel. You’ve truly earned the title of “that network with less dignity than ABC Family.” Be proud.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he’s not a Sasquatch in a sophisticated man-suit, as far as you know. You can follow him on Twitter.