One of the things I don’t like about the History Channel is the way in which they ham up ever historical figure. They promise hidden secrets, sordid affairs, all the juicy, gossipy details that are supposed to make history more lively. Of course, they are treading a thin line between entertainment and fact-giving, and I understand that’s a hard line to tread, especially if you want your show to be approachable by the average person. Discovery does a better job. Sure, they have their own hammy miniseries, complete with heavy-handed questioning (who were these elusive peoples? and why did they vanish?). But they also have great shows like Mythbusters, in which urban myths are tested in a semi-scientific way, and Cash Cab, in which people on the streets of New York get a free cab ride and the chance to win money for answering trivia questions on the way to their destination. I mean, I would love to ride in the cash cab – it looks so much fun? And it’s far more likely than me ever getting onto Jeopardy.
But at the same time, there is a more questionable side to the nature of their activities. Piggybacking on the ever-mysterious, ever-wondrous image of Egypt, Discovery made a deal with the Egyptian Museum. For exclusive rights to follow the search for Hatshepsut’s tomb, they paid for a new DNA laboratory at the museum. On one hand, this can be seen as a fair trade – both sides got something of value. But on the other, I have serious misgivings about funding for scientific research from the media. We all know scientific data gets manipulated – that’s what research articles about, interpreting and reinterpreting the data. But I worry about labs such as this one catering to television’s penchant for the dramatic.
This article gives a little more detail and exemplifies what I mean. If Discovery is already basically showing the mummy in question as Hatshepsut, what happens when the new DNA lab they paid for discovers it’s someone else? Is the documentary remade? Does the Museum owe something further to Discovery? Does it discourage or encourage future investors from television, and how does this influence archaeological research? Most research is undramatic and small – would TV be interested? Does it end up poeticized, just as our current image of Egypt is? I’m not sure, but it does give me pause.