Among the many changes delivered by the proliferation of media outlets is subspecialty programming. For decades, television ran at a consistent cadence. It had limited choice and very high control. Viewers could either tune into one of the three major networks, which aligned their schedules to identical time and style, or catch one of the less-than-a-handful of independents as they delivered reruns of network stock or the occasional lesser sporting event. We all watched the news at the same time, and we all came to expect that family drama would begin and end within the 22 minutes squeezed in between the commercials, opening and closing credits.
Evidence of the change is this month’s annual return of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” It includes hours of new programming aimed at all things about the apex predator of the high seas and their often bloody interactions with humans. The cable network promises to deliver dozens of hours of themed product that, even when discounted for the countless ads, is sure to bring some learning about the impressive animals.
Fans will attest that the producers have found a formula and stick with it. They build anticipation by use of short, often ominous, outlines – then cut to commercial. “You may die on this Florida beach, standby for more information.” Then, they explore a years-old attack and cut to a modern study that might explain the circumstance. “Is it safe to go back into the water?” Again, commercial. From there, they wrap up with something that seems like an answer but always with a caveat: “Scientists disagree on the variables and impact – more study is required.” It is all very exciting but intellectually unsatisfying. Is it safe to get into the water or not? How much death risk is a day of fun and exercise worth?