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What Happened to National Geographic?

The National Geographic channel recently enjoyed its best quarter since its inception in 2001. Over half a million viewers tuned in to watch its primetime shows: “Doomsday Preppers,” a series about overly concerned citizens—some would say whack jobs—preparing for the end of days; “Wicked Tuna,” a series about wild fishermen off the coast of Gloucester, Mass.; and a dramatization of Bill O'Reilly's book, Killing Lincoln. I’m not celebrating.

Something curious started to happen to National Geographic—or Nat Geo—in my senior year of high school. The channel where I grew up watching computer-simulated documentaries about triceratopses now airs back-to-back reality shows about Oregonian lumberjacks (“American Chainsaw”) and Alaskan cops (“Alaska State Troopers”). The network that taught me about Columbine and the Kent State shootings now glorifies all manner of personal weaponry (“Lords of War”). The channel my parents defended me for watching has now turned into one filled with sex (“Hard Time”), guns (“Family Guns”), and drugs (“Drugged,” “American Weed”). When did Nat Geo turn into a combination of Spike TV and Vice Media?

Educational television offered me the chance to sit down and be transplanted across the world—to the Brazilian Jungle, to the wilderness of Siberia, to the salt flats of Utah. It offered me the chance to vicariously appreciate, and gawk, at cultures and customs that were foreign to me. “Taboo,” a longtime series on the religious and cultural taboos of various cultures (think eating dogs and open-air burials) took me out of my comfort zone, but it didn’t cause me to lose respect for those cultures.  Nat Geo taught me that in some places on earth, men—and women—only wear loincloths. It taught me to think bigger than the deer and squirrels in forest that surrounded my house, than the country where I lived.

I look at today’s lineup and can’t help but feel disheartened. Nat Geo’s “Rocket City Rednecks” literally trivializes rocket scientists into hillbillies, playing up backwards and backwoods stereotypes. A series called “American Colony: Meet the Hutterites” about an Anabaptist community, distorts, contrives and possibly fabricates scenes to make the community seem wild and even raunchy. “Alaska State Troopers” was heavily criticized for “making heroes of troopers and buffoons of Alaskans,” as one reviewer commented. In sum, these reality television shows are embarrassingly short on reality and diversity.

Virtually their entire primetime lineup consists of one American reality show after another. Fisherman in Alaska, fisherman in Massachusetts, UFO hunters, American Gypsies, memorabilia collectors, tow truck drivers, prisoners, ex-prisoners, the list goes on. Forget Jane Goodall, Jacques Cousteau, and Steve Irwin. Forget journalistic integrity; Nat Geo has clearly thrown integrity into the wind. Why?

Ratings. It’s that simple. Trash for cash. The dedicated base of Nat Geo watchers—members of the National Geographic Society and subscribers to its iconic magazine—died out. What had been a 10-million-strong, dues-paying society dwindled to fewer than 5 million. The new generation of television watchers are clearly bored by the hypnotic, hour-long documentaries of the flamingo migrations narrated by the voice-of-God. They want it faster, coarser, ruder.

Sadly, we’re living in the era of “Honey Boo Boo,” and Nat Geo had to adapt to stay alive. When the History channel retired its World War II reels and rolled out “Pawn Stars,” Nat Geo unfortunately had to do the same.

By appealing to the lowest common denominator, however, National Geographic—the sacred institution dedicated to the dissemination of science, geography and culture—has made a terribly sad choice. They might have had their best quarter yet, but they sold their soul for Nielson ratings. That’s not the National Geographic I grew up watching.