Explore Your World: The Strange and Familiar Worlds
of Discovery Channel's Nature Programming
Qualitative Studies Division
1999 A.E.J.M.C. Convention
David P. Pierson
College of Communications
Pennsylvania State University
302C, James Bldg.
University Park, PA 16802
Home Phone: 814/235-9909
E-Mail: [log in to unmask]
Explore Your World: The Strange and Familiar Worlds
of Discovery Channel's Nature Programming
This paper asserts that the Discovery Channel's nature programs are structured
by dialectical discourses of familiarity and strangeness. On the one hand,
these programs invite viewers to evaluate animals through the human template of
character and to impose the model of human social organization onto the natural
world. On the other hand, because most animals are generally removed from the
daily lives of most people, they can be appreciated as exotic, aesthetic
object-subjects. Ultimately, this paper argues that the main problem with
perceiving of animals in human or spectacular terms is that it becomes difficult
to make environmental policy decisions not mired in the social and moral
conflicts of western societies.
Explore Your World: The Strange and Familiar Worlds
of Discovery Channel's Nature Programming
We cannot remember too often that when we observe nature,
and especially the ordering of nature, it is always ourselves
we are observing.
- G.C. Lichtenberg, Aphorisms (1765)
Explore your world.
- Discovery Channel promotional spot
In 1995, the Discovery Channel celebrated its 10th anniversary as one of the
most successful international cable television networks and cable brand
franchises. During this same year, Discovery was named the Cable TV Marketer of
the Year by Advertising Age for its innovative and integrated marketing efforts
within an increasingly competitive cable television environment. Besides its
expansive grouping of cable networks (Learning Channel, Animal Planet), the
Discovery Channel's corporate acquisitions and marketing ventures include a
nationwide chain of retail stores and future plans for a Discovery theme park
and resort center (Fitzgerald 20).
As with many new cable television networks, Discovery's road to financial
stability and marketing success was filled with numerous twists and turns. The
initial idea for the network came in 1982, when an American University professor
asked John Hendricks to help him distribute a documentary film about world
religions to other colleges and universities. As he investigated, Hendricks,
founder of the Discovery Channel, discovered the existence of an abundance of
old yet interesting documentaries gathering dust. To take advantage of this
documentary plentitude, he formed Discovery's parent, Cable Educational Network,
and began to acquire the broadcast rights to a diverse assortment of
documentaries produced by outfits such as the Public Broadcasting Service.
From its early inception, Discovery's programming centered primarily on nature,
science, and natural history documentaries. In 1991, Discovery acquired the
fiscally-ailing Learning Channel in a strategic move to shore up its lock on the
educational cable niche (Lewyn 68). Its focus remains centered on educational
programs, the humanities, ancient
The Strange and Familiar Worlds of Discovery Channel's Nature Programming
history and theoretical science, and has grown from 14 million viewers in 1991
to 43 million viewers in 1995 (Fitzgerald 20). Discovery's other cable networks
include the Travel Channel and Animal Planet. For subscribers with access to
expanded digital services, Discovery's digital networks include the Home &
Leisure Channel, Civilization Channel, Science Channel, Health Channel, Wings
Channel, Discovery en Espanol, and Discovery Channel for Kids.
During a 1996 cable TV marketing conference, leading cable network executives
reinforced the notion that, "effective branding means cultivating a network
identity around a narrowly targeted concept with global appeal" (Littleton 56).
Whether a cable network offers 24-hour news programming or classic Hollywood
movies, the central goal of successful cable branding is to become recognized as
a worldwide authority in a content field. Along with MTV and other cable
networks, the Discovery Channel has sought to establish a global brand image,
which is based on its perceived authority in educational and nonfictional
documentary programming. "A brand is something that can be appreciated
universally," said Greg Moyer, chief executive and creative officer of Discovery
Communications. "We no longer think of ourselves solely as distributors, but
that the heart and soul of our business is our brand" (Littleton 56). Hendricks
asserts that one of the main reasons Discovery is such a success is because they
were fortunate in claiming the "nonfictional cable niche first"(McElvogue 14).
The market strength of Discovery's brand has allowed it to extend its cable and
satellite networks into 40 countries and to expand its worldwide audience to
over 80 million viewers (Wharton 20).
While the previous information describes many of the corporate and economic
deteminants of Discovery's programming, it does not really explain how the
network produces and schedules programming which effectively engages its diverse
array of viewers. In fact, Discovery explicitly and tacitly develops a
recognizable "identity" across the range of its programming. The network also
creates programs that enable viewers to form certain cognitive and affective
connections to them. Bruce Gronbeck maintains that television network
programmers and producers "tap" into existing pools of cultural knowledge and
discourses to create television programs that engage their particular audiences
(232-43). In order to understand how the Discovery Channel taps into a wide
range of available social discourses and reworks, structures, and shapes them
into TV programs and program schedules which enable viewers to create a
multiplicity of meanings from them, this study will analyze a single week of
prime-time programming on the network. By analyzing the programs within the
program schedule, this study will determine the specific thematic discourses
that are represented in this week of prime-time (8:00-11:00pm, E.S.T.)
programming on the network.
In conducting this analysis, this study presumes that networks act as narrative
agents in that they draw on a series of preexisting, socially produced
discourses in the institutional process of producing and positioning programs
within their program schedules (Kozloff 70). A counter-argument to the idea
that networks are narrative agents is that the programs which comprise their
schedules are often produced by production companies and independent producers
who are not wholly affiliated with the network. But instead of engaging in the
ongoing debates over who is the true author of TV programming (producer,
director, actor-performer, production company), this study simply seeks to
examine the discursive role of the network in producing, commissioning, and
positioning TV programs within its program schedule. The network's main goals
are vastly different from say the program producer or director, they not only
need to attract viewers, but must sustain their interests across the range of
its program schedule.
Another possible point of contention in this study concerns the choice of
selecting a single week of prime-time programming over two or more weeks, or
perhaps an entire year of programming on the Discovery Channel. While analyzing
a month or a full year of programming would definitely produce a wealth of
useful information, arguably a single week of programming illustrates the
primary discursive strategies of a cable television network. Though choosing
another week for analysis would have certainly produced some program
differences, it should be acknowledged that Discovery's programming consists of
regularly scheduled anthology series (Wild Discovery, New Detectives). Because
the network's daytime programming is dissimilar to its prime-time programming,
this study will limit its claims to the network's prime-time program schedule.
In order to determine the specific thematic discourses which underlie
Discovery's prime-time programming, this study will reorder and restructure the
programs into narrative subject areas (nature, science and technology) and then
conduct an analysis of the central discourses represented in these programs.
The final process of this study is reconstructing these discourses into
identifiable discursive categories, which demonstrate a level of thematic unity.
Michael McGuire argues that this process of reordering and reconstructing is the
essence of structuralist criticism, "which seeks out thematic units and the
relationships among them" (291). Because of space limitations, this paper will
analyze the thematic discourses found within a week of Discovery's prime-time
nature programming. With the immense popularity of series such as Wild
Discovery, nature programs are the most visible and identifiable program genres
on the network. The two main thematic discourses represented in Discovery's
nature programs are: (1) Natural World as Familiar Domain; and (2) Natural World
as Spectacle. The primary reason that these discourses are instrumental in
understanding how the Discovery Channel engages its viewers and creates an
identifiable cable identity is that they (discourses) are already a recognizable
part of a viewer's social and imaginative worlds. These discourses do not just
exist in Discovery's programming but are, in fact, represented in many other
social and media forms. For instance, the discursive perspective of evaluating
animals through human moral values (good, evil, lazy) is also represented in
Hollywood films (The Lion King), circuses, children's books, songs, and other
popular cultural forms. It should also be acknowledged that these thematic
discourses have undeniable ideological and cultural implications for western
Natural World as Familiar Domain
Margaret King, in her thematic analysis of Disney nature films, openly asserts
that humans are continuously seeking out cultural patterns within the wider
range of the animal kingdom and beyond to include plants and minerals, undersea
life, and even the far reaches of outer space. The composite image of space
aliens with their juvenilized, universal physical features (huge heads, large
eyes, childlike size) are prime examples of the human impulse to seek out
humanlike companions in the most unlikely of places. This same impulse leads
people to perceive nature in human terms: how animals "enjoy" family life and
reproduce; how younger animals "learn" a particular trade and learn to survive
in a competitive wilderness. King claims that we set standards and values, and
use the "human template of character" to evaluate "animal intelligence, beauty
and virtue, diligence and playfulness, virtue and vice, suffering and reward,
community and perdition, birth and death" (King 61).
One of the most consistent cultural patterns present in Discovery's nature
programs and in nature programs in general is the cultural concept of gender.
One of the central assumptions made within early feminist scholarship is that
there is a distinct difference between sex and gender. The assumption maintains
that while biological sex is natural and innate, gender is a cultural construct.
Feminist scholarship maintains that biological sex differences cannot account
for the range of social meanings attached to gender (masculinity and femininity)
and to the distribution of power and social position between men and women.
But despite the overwhelming weight of academic theories and scholarship behind
this perspective, the majority of people still tend to conceive of gender
differences as natural and innately given. They tend to maintain that, beyond
sexual differences, there is an underlying essential gendered dichotomy between
men and women. The assumption that gender differences are natural and
"God-given" is so ingrained in our social consciousness and social institutions
that to perceive otherwise, carries with it undeniable social and political
implications (Coltrane 45).
The social tendency to essentialize gender differences is not just limited to
men, or to the political right. There are some women writers who conceive of
gender differences as being natural and timeless. For example, some cultural
and eco-feminists, and neoconservative feminists conflate gender and sex to
assert universal sex differences based on women's reproductive capabilities and
their assumed closeness to nature. A comparable essentialist argument about men
can be found in Robert Bly's popular Iron John. Bly theories that modern man
has lost touch with his innate "Zeus energy" and therefore must participate in
ancient "all-male" rituals to restore his natural self (Coltrane 45-6). The
central flaw in mythopoetic and essentialist approaches to gender is that they
use cultural and historically-determined myths and ancient practices to
construct universal and biological truths, while ignoring the specific social
contexts behind these myths and practices. The acceptance of the notion of a
natural "masculine fierceness," along with an innate drive to validate assumed
gender differences, carries with it the potential for violence directed at women
and other men who challenge these assumptions.
Even scientists are not exempt from observing and perceiving the natural world
through the culturally-constructed lens of gender. Londa Schiebinger asserts
that women were shut out of western science in the eighteenth century not
because of the rise of scientific academies or the formalization of scientific
procedures, but rather because women were perceived as being ill-equipped for
the intellectual pursuits of scientific research and better suited for
childbearing. Schiebinger points out that Linnaeus did not have to classify
plant life based solely on "sexual" differences - the physical presence of the
stamen, pistil and other parts. Nor did he have to classify mammals based on
the physical characteristic of lactating breasts, he could have chosen other
defining characteristics. She theorizes that these choices were made based on
the prevaling eighteenth century preoccupation with defining differences among
the sexes of human, animals, and plant life. The scientists were implicitly
searching for justifications in nature for social divisions of the sexes in
their societies. They were motivated by the social and political need to
exclude women from the fields and occupations of science in order that they will
attend to their prescribed roles as mothers and will bear children to support
the European nation-states' colonial, political, and economic expansion
throughout the world (Rogers 8-9).
In a similar manner, contemporary natural scientists have been taken to task
for carrying a number of gender-related assumptions into their research fields.
Virginia Morell claims that many of the early male primatologists overlooked the
role of the females in maintaining the social stability of the primate groups.
Morrell relates that the groundbreaking studies of DeVore and Washburn led to a
scientific view of the primate world as being filled with violence, political
intrigue, and socially dominated by male primates fighting and competing for
positions of power within the group. In contrast, the female "took on the look
of primate June Cleavers: sexually passive, burdened with the care of their
young, and valued primarily as sexual prizes for dominant males" (Morrell 428).
However, in the past two decades, the field of primatology has seen the influx
of women primarily drawn in part by the so-called "Trimates" - Jane Goodall,
Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas - protegees of Louis Leakey. Since the 1960s
there has been a dramatic reappraisal of some of the assumptions made by earlier
primatologists concerning the social organization of primates and the discovery
of the significant bonds which exist between female primates and the structure
of primate groups. A few primatologists maintain that the "pendulum has swung
so far the other way" that the field is facing a new orthodoxy. Jim Moore, a
primatologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that many
recent research studies have made the claim that "all primate societies are
female-bonded, just as people use to claim that they were all male-bonded"
In acknowledging that sex and gender differences among men and women is still a
critically contested social, cultural, and political issue in Western societies,
it would seem "natural" to suggest that one of the most accessible and
politically neutral domains by which to observe and contemplate these
differences is the world of nature. It should be noted that while the social
and behavioral characteristics of animals is dictated by their innate genetic
instincts, human behavior is primarily structured by a complex array of cultural
and social norms and contexts. Nevertheless, despite the specific physical and
cognitive differences that exist between humans and animals, many people
continue to seek out, unconsciously at least, gender patterns in nature. This
apparent human impulse has not gone unnoticed by filmmakers and producers of
so-called "nature films." In fact, both Disney's animated and documentary-style
nature films feature a collection of animals with highly recognizable human
gender-types from maternalistic and protective nature "mothers" (Bambi's
doe-mother) to playful and rambunctious "boy" bear cubs. These patterns as well
as others are also present in Discovery's nature programs. Beyond making
animal subjects more accessible to viewers, these gender patterns tend to
reinforce and "naturalize" many commonly held assumptions about the nature of
men and women. In Discovery's nature programs, two predominant gender patterns
are readily discernable to viewers - "Motherhood" and "Wild Males."
In the natural world, the majority of female animals are born with reproductive
capacities along with a range of innate maternal instincts, which are triggered
by the conception and birth of their offspring. While human females naturally
have innate reproductive capacities, there is much debate over the naturalness
of mothering and whether women are indeed born with certain so-called "maternal
instincts." Adria Schwartz points out that the concept of motherhood and the
subject of mothers stands at the apex of arguments between biological
essentialist and social construction of gender camps. As advanced reproductive
technologies have proliferated throughout modern culture, there has been an
intense struggle to understand these changes in light of the culture's common
thoughts about "mothers, mothering, and motherhood" (Schwartz 241). For
example, in what ways does the biomedical practice of in vitro fertilization and
the implantation of the fertilized ova into a "surrogate womb" for gestation
problematize and possibly conflict with traditional notions of motherhood?
Schwartz asserts that just as Judith Bulter deconstructs the supposedly unitary
and universal category of women in Gender Trouble (1990), one could ask whether
the term "mother" constitutes an unitary and a "stable signifier," which defines
and controls all of those who become attached to it? Or is the term "mother"
much like "woman" in that it tends to regulate and delimit existing gender
relations, achieving stability and coherence only in its prescribed position
within the domain of the traditional heterosexual family. Schwartz maintains
that Butler's critique would suggest that the category of mother is a
socially-constructed one based on the unstable category of gender. Butler
argues that gender and sex do not necessarily maintain a fixed relationship with
each other, primarily because the former is a social construct and the latter is
biological. Therefore, the term 'masculine' may signify a female body and the
term 'feminine' may just as easily signify a male body. Ultimately, Schwartz
asserts that through Butler's critical perspective, one may conceive of a new
definition of the term 'mother,' a term that is unconditional and unconstrained
by the social dictates of gender (Schwartz 250-52).
Although Schwartz demonstrates how the concept of mother can be deconstructed,
particularly in relations to gender, one of the most pressing questions is
explaining what psychological orientations lead to the reproduction of mothering
by females in western cultures? Nancy Chodorow suggests that the traditional
gendered and sexed model of nurturing mothers and nonnurturing fathers has
become an integral part of a continuous process of identification and
internalization. While this process usually begins within the confines of the
family, a central facet of this identification process is the continuous
production and circulation of dominant images of motherhood in culture (Chodorow
248-50). For centuries, a myriad of maternal images have been circulated in the
art world in paintings, sculptures, architecture, and literary works. Today,
maternal images not only circulate in the fine arts but are also disseminated
across a wide range of mass media. It should be acknowledged that not all of
these images were traditional. In fact, many of these images were ideologically
contradictory to the dominant image of motherhood.
However, in Discovery's nature programs, traditional images of motherhood are
reproduced within the naturalizing domain of the animal kingdom. In the Wild
Discovery episode, "Great Siberian Grizzly" (7/28/98) a mother grizzly leads her
three bear cubs from their winter hibernation den on a long trek to a
salmon-filled lake for the summer and then makes the perilous journey back to
the den before the descent of winter. Invariably, the mother bear's
maternalistic instincts are featured in a number of familiar scenarios from
nursing her young cubs to fearlessly protecting her cubs from being attacked by
adult male bears. On one particular occasion, the mother bear intimidates an
adolescent male bear from advancing towards her three cubs. The bear is also
represented as the ultimate in self-sacrificing mothers when she delays their
agonizing, snow-swept journey back to the den for a day to care for one of her
weakened cubs. The episode's voice-over narration highlights her sacrificial
behavior: "mothers risk everything to give a fallen cub a chance." Maternal
images also abound in other Wild Discovery episodes. In "Whitetail Country"
(7/31/98) maternal images not only include a mother-doe nursing her newborn
fawn, but the sight of a tender "mutual grooming" session between the doe and
her young. In Sci-Tek's - The Science of Whales (8/1/98), the viewer learns
that a newborn whale calf stays with her mother for a year or more. These
episodes stress that in nature the female animals primary instinctual role is
giving birth and caring for her young. As with the early primate studies, her
social relations with other females and with the social group in general are
usually de-emphasized in Discovery's nature programs.
Another prevalent gender pattern found in Discovery's nature programs may best
be described as the representation of "Wild Males." Mature male animals are
represented as physically and sexually aggressive, combative and competitive
with other males, and disassociated from and often hostile to the offspring of
their own species. The social image of human males as "naturally" physically
and sexually aggressive and inherently disassociated from any nurturing role is
often used as ammunition by those assuming the biologically essentialist
position towards sex and gender. While Bly and other followers of the mens'
movement rely on figures from ancient Greek, Roman, and Native American
mythologies to construct their masculine ideals, these social ideals generally
rest on the timeless categorization of "Man-the-Hunter" and spiritual
wanderer-seeker of new knowledge (Coltrane 45-6). One of the central problems
with these gendered conceptions is that women in these ancient and past cultures
were relegated to domestic and nurturing roles in society.
In the Wild Discovery episode, "Whitetail Country" the voice-over narration
explains that a strict social structure undergrids a herd of whitetail deer.
This rigid power structure dictates that subordinate bucks must avoid eye
contact with dominant bucks. These dominant bucks use their superior size to
intimidate any rivals and to maintain their dominant positions. On a rare
occasion, a buck intent on defending his doe must participate in a one-on-one
antiller fight with a rival buck. While the loser of the fight must leave the
area, the "victor buck" is said to strengthen the genetic lineage of the deer
population. In The Science of Whales, the narration points out that a similar
power structure exists with whales in which one male challenges another
established male for mating rights with the female. As with the bucks, the male
whales fight one-on-one against each other with a series of brutal headbutts
until the other dies or leaves the area. And, as with the bucks, the
consequence of this violent encounter is that the male is "rewarded" with the
mating rights with the females. While these episodes accurately present a
central facet of the existing social and power structures within these species,
their continued stress on the more aggressive and power-related practices of the
males tends to perpetuate the social perception that all male animals (including
humans) are predominantly "Wild Males" at heart.
King, in her analysis of Disney's True-Life nature films, asserts that one of
the central themes of these films is the anthropomorphizing of the entire
spectrum of nature including animal and plant life. The broad template of human
social organization, with its inscribed concerns, morals and values, are imposed
onto the natural world. Disney extends its anthromorphic slant by creating
animal "stars" and providing them with names, often human names: Flash, the
Teenage Otter (1965) and Perri (1957) a film biography of a squirrel. On one
level, the viewer is asked to assume that these names are comparable to other
facets of nature. One primary anthropomorphic technique is to narratively
construct the film's central animals as emphatic "characters" with clearly
discernable personalities. For example, in Disney's The Incredible Journey
(1963), the live-action film story of three pets making their long way back home
could have just as easily featured three human characters, with their own
idiosyncrasies, personal goals, and distinctive character traits. But for the
viewer, cats and dogs give the story an added dimension - "the nature dimension"
This anthropomorphic penchant for constructing animals into characters is also
present in Discovery's nature programs. For example, the Wild Discovery
episode, "Great Siberian Grizzly" is primarily structured by two simultaneous
storylines. The main story concerns a mother grizzly bear and her three cubs,
and their long springtime trek to a salmon-filled lake and their perilous snowy
journey back to the winter den. The secondary story concerns an adolescent
bear's crucial life struggle to master the art of catching salmon in order to
put on enough body weight to survive the long winter hibernation. Both of these
storylines follow a familiar chronological narrative as it traces the animals
progression from springtime back to the winter den. Through the continual
incorporation of intimate close-up shots accompanied by a voice-over narration
which details the animal's specific behavior and motivations, these animals are
effectively transformed into dramatic characters for the viewing audience.
While this episode does describe the activities of other wildlife in Kamchatka,
it primarily presents dual narratives featuring the mother grizzly and her cubs,
and the vital life lessons of a single adolescent bear. Though the Discovery
Channel stops short of personally naming its animals and does portray them in a
less sentimental manner than Disney, nevertheless many of its nature programs
focus on the character-like storylines of one or more animals.
Another anthropomorphic technique is to use familiar human terms to describe
acts of nature. In the Wild Discovery episode, "Baboons" (7/26/98) the
voice-over narration characterizes baboons in such morally judgmental terms as
"criminals," "beggars," and "victims." The program's narrative involves the
social, economic, and environmental problems associated with the baboon
population, within a Kenyan national park, and its close proximity to the Kenyan
people. A central facet of the episode's narrative concerns the baboons
destructive and economic damage to local farm crops, which borders the park. In
this segment, the visual rhetoric and narration constructs the moral image of
these baboons as "raiders" committing a "crime" by "stealing" corn in the
fields. This sense of transgressing against humans is further reinforced by a
dramatic sequence in which baboons invade a village home and damage private
property in their search for food. In other narrative segments in this episode,
a troop of baboons "beg on the streets" for food and "exploit" the interests of
roadside tourists who stop alongside a Kenyan highway, while another segment
presents the repulsive image of baboons fighting among themselves and
scavengering for food in the smoldering remains of a Kenyan hotel's burning
trash dump. In socially constructing these baboons as human-like criminals,
vagrants, and beggars it would seem reasonable and perhaps morally justifiable
to punish and reform them into good citizen baboons. But, in a contradictory
manner, these same baboons are also represented as "victims." As an annual
effort to protect their villagers' farm crops, the Kenyan government either
traps or shoots "problem baboons" who periodically escape from the national
park. The victimization of these baboons is emotionally dramatized through a
tight close-up shot of a caged baboon with an extremely pained, fearful
expression on his face. The narration also informs the viewer that many of
these baboons end up as subjects in medical research labs and postulates whether
the benefits to humankind can ever compensate for their suffering. This episode
illustrates the particular and often confusing dilemma of perceiving nature and
its animals in predominantly human and morally normative terms.
This tendency of anthropomorphizing animals includes the way in which
individual animals are constructed and perceived by viewers. The majority of
animals in nature programs tend to fall within the confines of what can be
called the cuteness/repulsiveness dichotomy. On the one hand, certain animals
(lions, bears, whales) are valued for their aesthetic beauty and form.
Traditionally, humans are attracted to animals that have the evolutionary
juvenilization of biological features. These features include large eyes,
protruding cranium, and retreating demonstrative baby releasers in its juvenile
appearance. On the other hand, animals with an adult alien appearance, lack of
baby releasers in its juvenile appearance, and employ senses outside of human
abilities are associated with negative values (Papson 73). These negative
values may be translated into emotional reactions like disgust and repulsion.
Kellert asserts that the list of species disliked by Americans include "the
cockroach, mosquito, rat, wasp, rattlesnake, bat, vulture, and shark" (21).
This type of dichotomy is represented in many of Disovery's nature programs.
When a young bear cub dies in "Great Siberian Grizzly," his death is not only a
family tragedy but, in fact, represents a preordained form of spiritual death.
The voice-over narration poetically explains that when the young cub dies his
"soul will return to the Kamchatka mountains." In effect, this small bear cub
is granted the same level of spirituality normally reserved for humans and
their deities. But while bear cubs are valued to the extent of being endowed
with spiritual souls, other animals are so reviled and physically repulsive that
we tend to associate them with moral "evil." In Discovery's Movie Magic
episode, "Snakes, Snakes and More Snakes" (7/28/98) several experts attempt to
understand why most people are scared of snakes. One expert theorizes that
people unconsciously fear snakes because of their disturbing tube-shaped design
and their innate ability to swallow their victims whole. He elaborates that
snakes are like "traveling esophaguses." Despite the program's best efforts to
demystify the rationale behind people's dread of snakes, it still continues to
emphasize the same negative attributes which are socially attached to the
animals. For instance, the narration not only informs the viewer that the
African black mambo has an inherent nasty disposition that leads it to attack
without provocation, but that it is "the most dangerous snake in the world."
David Bell, a herpetologist, who served as a consultant on the film Venom
(1982), temporarily departs from his scientific descriptions of the mambo's
behavior to question why God ever put such a deadly creature on the earth.
One of the most prevalent themes in nature programs is a persistent stress on
nature's intrinsic hierarchal structure. In Discovery's nature programs, this
structure is often referred to as the "Great Chain of Being." In this chain,
the natural world is perceived as a sort of grand circular food chain, in which
every species both dominates and is dominated by another. At the top of this
hierarchal structure are humans followed by the other warm-blooded mammals.
Foucault reminds us that the Enlightenment perception of nature as an ordered
and functional hierarchy is actually a discursive formation created by humans
seeking to impose their sense of order onto the natural world. He further
points out that our very understandings and realizations of the natural world
are invariably circumscribed and limited by the structure of our own language
systems (Foucault 153). Because all language is metaphoric to "outside of skin"
reality, perceiving nature as a great chain of being is no less valid than
observing it as a Newtonian mechanism or a living social organism. Also because
humans have a historical and cultural tendency of imposing their own social
organization onto the natural world, it should come as no surprise that nature
is seen as a familiar social world. In many ways, nature's perceived hierarchal
structure mirrors the socio-economic stratification undergriding
late-twentieth-century modern capitalism. And just as the social structure of
the whitetail deer is represented as a patriarchal order in which dominant males
compete for social and genetic dominance within a single herd, a similar power
struggle exists among humans within an increasingly social darwinistic global
capitalist system. While the spoils for the dominant bucks includes a "harem" of
does and the continuation of their genetic heritage, the perceived common-sense
rewards for dominant humans includes social, economic, and sexual success.
Another familiar discourse often associated with modern capitalism is that of
gambling. Capitalism is frequently perceived as a complex, risky game of
identifiable winners and losers, in which a majority of new business ventures
fail every year. A similar gambling discourse is used to explain why some
species survive over others. In Discovery's The Extinction Files (7/27/98),
despite the program's determined scientific discourse, the narration frequently
employs the discourse of gambling to remind viewers that species evolution and
extinction are primarily driven by chance and luck. For instance, during the
late Cretaceous period, the demise of the dinosaurs and the mass extinction of
seventy-six percent of the species on earth provides a forum for the mammals to
emerge as "winners" and assume "center-stage" in the evolutionary game. It
should be noted that evolutionary changes are never absolutes and, in fact,
involve a certain level of indeterminacy. But the program's continued reliance
on a gambling discourse portrays the evolutionary process as a type of natural
lottery in which there are clear winners and losers.
The nature program's discursive themes concerning evolving winners and losers
of its hierarchal structure leads to its stress on the darwinian aspects of
species adaptability and the survival of the fittest. In "Great Siberian
Grizzly," for example, a bear cub's apparent "passive" nature implicitly leads
to the cub's eventual demise. And as an adolescent bear struggles to catch
swimming salmon during Kamchatka's evanescent summer, the program's narrator
informs the viewer that the bear's very survival depends on his mastery of this
In many ways, Discovery's nature programs interconnects to the general cultural
enthusiasm for biological and genetic explanations for human behavior. Paula
Fass asserts that despite the fact that most social scientists acknowledge that
social and cultural processes have had a dramatic impact on the development of
the human brain and the expression of its thought processes and thereby forever
altering genetic determinism, contemporary media is filled with stories about
the discovery of a new gene and the further advancement of understanding and
controlling human life and behavior. This progressive march towards the genetic
domination and control of human life is best exemplified by the continued work
of the human genome project. She proclaims that it is ironic that the main
promise offered by the project is increased human control over the same genetic
domain that was once publicly and academically scorned for its biological
determinism (Fass 238-39; Cole 456-57).
According to King, one of the central issues posed in the nature film is
defining the proper relationship between humans and nature. What other types of
relationships are possible other than the older "exploiter/exploited model"?
(King 61). These relationships involve a number of relevant issues including
hunting and preservation, conservation and animal husbandry, and protecting
select animal and plant species (King 61). But before one can address these
issues one must first define nature.
Macnaghten and Urry suggest that most people take for granted that strictly
speaking there is no such thing as one single identifiable "nature," there are
only natures. These different versions of nature establish the boundaries for
ongoing debates over the social meaning of nature and humankind's proper
relationship to it. Szerszynski outlined two distinct ways in which nature has
been conceived. The first, is the conception of nature as a threatened realm.
This conception can be seen in the public concern over endangered species, the
idea of nature as an exhaustible resource worthy of conservation, and the
perception of nature as a pure and healthy body being constantly threatened by
human-made pollution (Macnaghten 22).
This social conception of nature as a threatened realm is represented in many
of Discovery's nature programs. In this conception, humans are implicitly
represented as having ultimate power and control over nature. Unchecked, this
control often becomes a destructive force against nature. In the episode,
"Baboons" the narrator exemplifies the extend of this control when he solemnly
asserts that "humans have altered the world beyond all recognition." In the
Wild Discovery episode,"The Island of the Apes" (7/29/98) the African villagers
seasonal damming of a river to dig for diamonds has disastrous environmental
consequences for the indigenous fish and the spot neck otter. Later, in the
episode, the viewer also learns that "monkey hunting" is not only a big business
in neighboring Serra Leone, but that the hunters are threatening the very
survival of the primate population on the tiny island of Teeya.
Szerszynski's second conception of nature is as a sacred realm filled with
great moral and spiritual power, a place to be enjoyed and worshiped by humans.
As with the first, this conception may come in many guises: nature as a place of
beauty and sublimity, nature as an aesthetic and spectacular object, nature as a
place for relaxation and recreation, nature as an inexhaustible resource for
moral, physical, and spiritual healing, and nature as a peaceful sanctity from
the moral and spiritual ravages of modern and industrialized social life
In Discovery's nature programs, nature is sometimes represented as a great
eternal entity. In "Siberian Grizzly," the episode's picturesque visual
rhetoric and narration work together to present the animals of Kamchatka as
being a part of the perpetual great chain of being including every creature from
"bear-to-eagle." The death of an animal is seen as just a part of this great
cycle: "salmon are the lords - they die so others can live." At the end of this
episode, the narrator calls on humans to learn from this great cycle in
Kamchatka, a near eternal place where one encounters "innocent animals" which
have existed since the Ice Age. He states that the "great bears can teach us so
much we have forgotten." This episode conceives nature as an all-knowing,
God-like teacher with the inexhaustible capacity to restore and renew
humankind's place within the universe. In this conception, humans are humbled
into being just one of nature's creatures. The central danger in perceiving
nature as an eternal entity is that one easily overlooks the impact humans
continue to have on the natural world (McKibben 1-8).
A third set of representations of nature constructs it as an open-air
laboratory or a field for scientific inquiry. While this conception of nature
may readily acknowledge many of the same assumptions of the "nature as
threatened" representations, it primarily maintains that nature is a realm that
can be managed and controlled through modern science and conservation. Lowe
points out that in the early part of the twentieth-century there were early
tensions between preservationists who desired to leave nature in its original
wild state, and ecologists who were apt to regard nature and nature reserves as
sites for scientific inquiry. By the end of the second world war, there emerged
a consensus among the western scientific community that wildlife and
conservation issues came to be incorporated within the new rational, planned
order (Macnaghten 38-40).
This conception of nature is represented in Discovery's nature programs.
Because one of the main components of modern science is empirical observation,
surveillance becomes one of the primary tasks of the scientist studying the
natural world. Surveillance is necessary not only for the rudimentary function
of counting, categorizing, and describing all forms of animal and plant life,
but to use this information to make conservationist decisions about whether to
alter nature's natural habitat or its biological conditions. For instance, in
Discovery's Jaws in the Mediterranean (7/29/98) natural scientists rely on
numerous methods to survey the "shark ecology" of the great white shark in the
waters of the Mediterranean Sea. These methods include measuring the size of
small sharks at a local village fishmonger's market to studying the great
white's available food supply of seals and dolphins. Later, in the episode, the
scientists continue their surveillance efforts by tagging blue sharks in order
to track their growth and migration patterns. In some cases, scientists
actively intrude into the behavioral and biological functions of animal life.
In the Discovery News (7/31/98) news story, "Honey Bees Under Attack,"
scientists help Floridian farmers by "teaching" American honey bees to eat the
eggs of the South African black beetle which threatens the production of their
Natural World as Spectacle
If the Discovery Channel's nature programming frequently constructs a domain
that is reassuringly "familiar" to viewers, it also presents a world that is
undeniably "strange." It is a world that frequently exists in the most
geographically extreme terrains (from civilization) and is often perceived as an
inhospitable environment for human life. In other words, these distant, exotic
geographic locations are counterpoised to the comforting domestic spheres, which
comprise the urban and suburban worlds of its viewers. For instance, "Siberian
Grizzly" begins with a series of shots of a snow-ladden, mountainous, barren
terrain, with the voice-over narrator informing the viewer that the Russian
Peninsula of Kamchatka "is one of the world's best-kept natural history secrets.
. . remote and isolated." The exoticness and spectacle of this locale is
emphasized by its visual imagery, heavily dramatic music, and narration which
informs the viewer that Kamchatka is a land containing thirty-three active
volcanos, huge glaciers, and is riddled with smoke-filled thermo beds. The
narration highlights the terrain's mysteriousness and timelessness by calling
it a place of "primordial heat." Although a vastly different type of
landscape, the tropical island of Teeya in the episode "The Island of the Apes"
is just as foreign and strange to Western viewers. This island sits in the
middle of the Moa River in the country of Serra Leone in West Africa. The island
is further differentiated as the only island with a dense rainforest and the
only one (rainforest) left from the Upper Guinea Forest. The island's uniqueness
is further identified as having one of the largest concentrated primate
populations in the world. From the program's outset, the narration implicitly
reminds the viewer that they are receiving a rare glimpse into an unfamiliar and
exciting natural area. In fact, the Menda, a nearby West African tribe, are
said to protect the island from foreigners and hunters and worship the island as
a "sacred place."
However it should be noted that not all Discovery nature programs feature
exotic, foreign, and faraway locations to explore diverse animal life. The
episode, "Whitetail Country," for example, is located in the woodlands of North
America and documents the attributes and behavioral characteristics of the
whitetail deer. But despite the more familiar aspects of the huge deer
population in certain regions in North America, most people have little direct
experience with deers. For the vast majority of people, their primary
experiences with indigenous wildlife (deers, bears) is chiefly defined by
humanly-created animal zoos, circuses, and theme parks. Therefore, this episode
still offers viewers an unusual up-close yet mediated experience of whitetail
deers in their natural habitat.
Because the animals featured in nature programs are marginal to the lives of
most of us, one of the most pressing questions is why viewers are attracted to
images of animals who have no relationship to their everyday lives? Aside from
their perceived marginality, sharks, bears, snakes, and other animals evidently
have television audiences. Stephen Papson suggests that one way to address this
question is to focus on the cultural relevance of the information. For
instance, knowledge about a particular animal has cultural relevance when it
becomes essential for everyday life. For South Pacific islanders, knowledge
about sharks and their natural habitat is crucial for their daily existence.
When the animal is part of the physical environment, it becomes assimilated into
the cultural system which maintains its adaptability with the natural
environment (Papson 77-8). Papson points out that, in western societies,
animals have been physically and cultural marginalized from modern life.
Ultimately, the processes of modernization, industrialization, and urbanization
continue to divide the relationship between animal and humans and this has led
to a more fragmented, aesthetized form of relations.
Papson argues that if cultural salience is lacking in relation to the natural
world, a new salience develops based on aesthetization and spectacularization
(78). This process of aesthetization reflects the separation of the object or
subject from the experience of everyday life. Macnaghten and Urry point out
that in England, by the end of the eighteenth century, a select few areas like
the English Lake District were tamed for aesthetic consumption and that nature
was turned into a visual spectacle. While the Lake District was one of the
first natural sites to be turned into "beautiful," it had been regarded as a
rugged and untamed region just a few decades earlier. They point out that even
Daniel Defoe viewed the English Lake District as one of the "wildest, most
barren and fruitful" places he had ever visited. In fact, up until the latter
part of the eighteenth century nature was conceived as a wild and hostile
domain. Macnaghten and Urry relate that nature was frequently perceived as an
inhospitable place filled with "impenetrable forests, fearsome wild animals,
unscalable mountains and ravines, hostile demons and appalling odors issuing
from the bowels of the earth, especially through the orifices of swamps and
marshes" (Macnaghten 114).
Central to the spectacularization of nature were the development of various
visual discourses, including the sublime, which enabled the most frightening
aspects of nature to be reconceived and reformulated into a subjective aesthetic
experience. Macnaghten and Urry relate that these discourses were derived from
the aesthetic concepts of Kant and Burke. Burke theorizes that the sublime is a
complex experience, involving simultaneous feelings of terror and pleasure. He
maintains that in order for an individual to overcome the terrifying aspects of
the sublime, she must redirect this intense energy to symbolically remove
herself from the threatening object. The sublime involves a strong affective
response to rugged and untamed landscapes, rapidly flowing rivers, crashing
seawaves, and jagged rock ledges and overhangs that were perceived threatening
to humans. The discourse of the sublime includes the widespread use of
descriptive terms like "desolate, wild, primaeval, hideous, frightful, and
astonishing" (Macnaghten 114).
At the outset of the nineteenth century there was a gradual proliferation of
discourses which came to view nature as a visual spectacle. These discourse
came to perceive nature as a site filled with beautiful scenery, expansive
landscapes, and a host of insatiable perceptual pleasures. Macnaghten and Urry
claim that these discourses were influenced by the popular musings of the
Romantic writers who constructed nature as a place of leisurely pursuits,
touristic pleasures, and as a solace from the coarse environment of the
industrial cities. These discourses also functioned as legitimators for
socially constructing diverse parts of nature into entertaining spectacles from
dramatic landscapes to picturesque meadows to turbulent seascapes. These same
visual discourses also legitimated the transformation of nature's most
terrifying animals (lions, elephants) into visual spectacles and aesthetically
pleasing objects of nature. This aesthetization and spectacularization process
was extended with the advent of photography. Photography, as a new
communication medium, helped to construct a new aesthetic discourse as to what
aspects of nature were worth "sightseeing" (scenic vistas, exotic animals),
along with excluding many elements from this discursive process. Macnaghten and
Urry further argue that photography's affect on nature is best illustrated in
the ways in which "the snapshot transforms the resistant aspect of nature into
something familiar and intimate, something we can hold in our hands and
memories. In this way, the camera allows us some control over the visual
environments of our culture" (116).
In Discovery's nature programs, the visual rhetoric and narration work together
to re-present a natural landscape, occurrence (volcano, earthquake) or an animal
(lion, scorpion) as a spectacular yet intimate aesthetic object available to be
scrutinized by the viewer. As a perceptual object, the animal or natural
phenomena can be valued primarily for its more visually-oriented physical and
material qualities. Spectacularization is achieved primarily because these
animal characteristics are presented as distinctly nonhuman and "otherly."
These programs by focusing on an animal's physical and instinctual
characteristics often neglect to explore other aspects including its cognitive
functions and its larger position within the world's changing eco-system.
The most prominent physical characteristics featured in Discovery's nature
programs are an animal's adaptability to its environment and its predatory
abilities. In terms of adaptation, an animal's adaptability is liken to an art
object, in which form follows function. In the episode, "Baboons," for
example, the narrator marvels at the resourcefulness and adaptability of baboons
to survive in a number of distinct environments. He points out that in a Kenyan
nature reserve filled with plentiful rivers and creeks baboons have learned to
swim underwater in order to crossover to the other side. The episode stresses
that the baboons remarkable adaptability even extends to their survival within
man-made environments including motor roadways and the grounds of a tourist
In the episode, "The Red Desert" a large number of species are highlighted for
their unique naturally adaptable designs. These species include "solar-powered"
lizards which are innately designed for the harsh desert climate primarily
because they are encased in waterproofed scales. Because the lizard's scales
need to be heated by the sun, its physical design is well-suited for high-speed
predatory activities. During the daytime the salty basin of Yurallan is an
inferno with tempartures soaring to 140 degrees fahrenheit yet even here some
animals manage to do well but only after sunset. A unique insect called the
tiger beetle spends its entire lifespan on the salt basin. The beetle's
long-limbs enable it to achieve quick speeds to capture and live off of insects
blown in from the savannah.
Furthermore, in the episode, "Whitetail Country" a whitetail newborn fawn is
uniquely designed to hide itself from its potential predators (wolves, coyotes).
The fawn's coat is naturally camophlaged to easily blend into the natural
environment. As with the desert hedgehog, the fawn's sensitive sense of hearing
enables it to detect a nearby predator. Upon detecting a close intruder, the
fawn instinctually lies still and motionless in tall grass and gives off very
little body scent. The episode represents the whitetail deer as an aesthetic
animal-object naturally designed for its North American habitat. Because the
deer's innate instincts and features are completely distinct from human traits,
these characteristic differences serve as spectacular attractions for television
The second prominent physical characteristic represented in many of Discovery's
nature programs is an animal's inherent predatory and hunting abilities. In
fact, the predatory nature of animals is highlighted in the opening sequence of
the popular Wild Discovery series. This sequence consists of a fast-paced
montage of animals (lions, crocodiles) charging directly at the camera. This
sequence, which frames the series, both illustrates and reminds the viewer that
the program features wild, untamed animals. The term "wild" signifies the
opposite meaning of tame, domestic, and civilized, which are traits normally
associated with the suburbanized and urbanized worlds of the network's viewers.
This predatory characteristic is further emphasized within the narratives of
the nature programs. In "Red Desert" the sand boa constrictor, though only 8
inches long, has eyes on the top of its head and is perfectly designed to glide
beneath the sand in order to ambush its prey. The boa then proceeds to squeeze
the life out of its prey. The episode also features the tiny pieballed shrew,
described by the narrator as a lethal "gray and white assassin." Despite its
miniature size, the shrew does not hesitate to attack a locust twice its own
size. After dispatching its prey, the tiny shrew is able to get enough moisture
from the bodily fluids of its victims to survive for days without water. In
"Siberian Grizzly," the narrator dramatically and painstakingly outlines the
natural predatory features of the Siberian Grizzly bear: ". . . ripping teeth,
5-inch claws - they are killers." The episode demonstrates the predatory traits
of the grizzly through segments showing the bears hunting and killing lake
salmon and caribou.
Another means by which an animal's predatory abilities are highlighted and
turned into a visual spectacle is to socially construct the animal as an
explicit threat and danger to humans. Despite the fact that shark attacks are
rare and that the likelihood of an attack is less than being struck by
lightning, Discovery's Jaws of the Mediterranean continually relies on the
threat of a shark attack to engage its viewers. The program begins its
documentary-style narrative by featuring a dramatic re-enactment of a 1956 shark
attack near Malta on the Mediterranean Sea in which a man is fatally attacked by
a great white shark. Besides intense dramatic music, the program relies on a
number of fictional techniques to heighten the dramatic fear of a shark attack.
For example, to highlight the shark's imminent threat to swimmers in the
Mediterranean the program employs the same shark's-eye point-of-view shot of the
swimmers as the popular 1975 feature film Jaws. This fictional film technique
along with the program's title "Jaws" not only furnishes an accessible
intertextual reference for viewers but also provides another framework
(fictional) by which to view and interpret the program. In another shark attack
incident, an Italian fire chief claims that the only "signs" left of a diver's
fatal encounter with a great white are the indentations left on the diver's
steel air tanks. The diver's body was never found. The program also presents
the great white as an historically-situated creature whose officially recorded
attacks on humans in the Mediterranean date back at least to the turn of the
century. In 1909, a newspaper story reports that forty people were attacked by
sharks, with eighteen fatalities. On the one hand, the program presents the
great white shark as a threat to humans and other sea life (dolphins). On the
other hand, it also presents the great white as a "victim" of Italian pollution
in the Adriatic Sea in which the loss of its food supply (tuna, dolphins)
threatens its own survival.
In a similar manner, while the Movie Magic's episode "Snakes, Snakes and More
Snakes" illustrates how Hollywood has exploited "our fears" of snakes in feature
films, at the same time, the narrative continues to rely on the threat of snakes
to engage its viewers. And though the episode details how Hollywood employs the
latest in computer animation and animatronic technologies to create realistic
snakes that are scarier and more menacing than nature, nonetheless it continues
to refer to snakes as "nature's most hated creatures" and the "least human of
all creatures." Throughout the episode's narrative descriptions of Hollywood's
creation of deadly filmic snakes are interspersed anecdotal stories of actual
near death experiences with snakes. One story describes the perilous scenario
of an animal trainer who's heart stopped after his body was squeezed by a giant
python. The trainer, though pronounced clinically dead, was revived by
paramedics when they restarted his heart and saved his life. Snakes are also
perceived as aesthetic objects that in some ways are superior to humans. A
professional snake wrangler comments that the black mambo "survives much better
than we can - they are perfect."
In a few cases, Discovery's nature programs construct animals that may or may
not still exist as potential threats and dangers to humans. In the Into the
Unknown episode, "God Bear of Kamchatka" (7/30/98) scientific statements by
natural scientists and computer animation are used to depict the immense
physical dimensions of the great Ice Age bear: "three times the size of the
American bear; stands nine feet tall at shoulder; and weighs two-and-a-half
thousand pounds." The only proof of the possible existence of the ancient bear
are a few scattered personal accounts and folk stories of people living in the
Russian Providence of Kamchatka. Despite the preponderance of scientific
evidence that the bear is extinct, the episode's narrative repeatedly highlights
the bear's physical superiority over humans. For instance, Dr. Chris Cooper, a
kinesiologist, asserts that humans "could not of survived these large predators"
and that "humans could not escape the bear - the bear was faster than the
horse." This point is further illustrated with footage showing that even a
well-trained athlete pushed to his limits cannot achieve enough speed to escape
the charging bear. A computer animation segment depicts the God Bear attacking
a tribe of early cavemen. The narrator points out that the caveman's stone
tools and weapons were simply no match for the huge ancient bear. While the
episode's narrative highlights the ongoing debate over whether the God Bear
still exists, nonetheless one of its primary attractions is the spectacle of the
great bear as a perceived threat to humans..
Another thematic discourse represented in the "God Bear" program (as well as
others) is the timeless theme of humans struggling against the forces of nature.
These forces may include wild animals (bears, lions) and natural phenomena
(earthquakes, hurricanes). Although modern technoscience has given humans an
almost indomitable control over the forces of nature, Discovery's science and
nature programs focus much of their narrative concerns on the enduring human
struggles with the natural world. In World of Wonder (7/31/98), for example, a
news story depicts humankind's eternal and mythic struggle with the "most lethal
of all natural disasters - floods." The story begins by reminding viewers that
the "great flood" was a pivotal force of nature in the Bible. Though the story
details the efforts of scientists and engineers to predict flood patterns, its
narrative primarily consists of indelible images of nature's destructiveness.
These images include a father and son swept away by the flood waters of a Texas
river, a pickup truck literally washed off a road, and an entire town devastated
by massive river flooding. The scientists' work is given mythic proportions
when the narrator dramatically informs the viewer that they (scientists) are
engaged in a "historic epic battle with nature."
What are the ideological and social implications of Discovery's nature
programs' perceptions of the natural world as both familiar and strange domains?
While these programs do provide factual information about animals, they also
rely on the "human template of character" to perceive animals in moral and
normative terms, and to engage their viewers on a dramatic and emotional level.
These programs also tap into the viewer's knowledge of human social organization
to impose this hierarchal social order to the "animal kingdom." The animal
world is represented as a highly dramatic realm filled with close-knit families,
external conflicts, and intense competitions - in other words, a world not
unlike the one inhabited by Discovery's middle-class, suburban viewers. For the
most part, these social representations of the animal world tend to reinforce
the dominant social and cultural conceptions of social class and gender in the
human world. If animals are valued for their human-like qualities, they are
also valued for their non-human and strange attributes. Because these animals
are generally removed from the daily lives of the viewers, they can be more
easily appropriated as aesthetic, and exotic object-subjects, to be primarily
appreciated for their physical and instinctual qualities (hunting, reproducing).
The main problem with perceiving of animals in anthropomorphic or spectacular
terms is that it becomes increasingly difficult for people not to impose their
moral and social assumptions onto the natural world. In effect, public policy
decisions concerning animal and plant life, and the natural environment become
inescapably mired in the moral and social universe of human communities.
Nature, or the natural world is frequently conceived in both diverse and
contradictory conceptions in Discovery's nature programs. These conceptions
include nature as an eternal moral and spiritual balm for modern life; nature as
a victim to industrialization, pollution, and human manipulation; and nature as
a field of scientific and conservationist endeavors, or as a domain
necessitating preservation and protection from human societies. These
conceptions of nature are contradictory primarily because people have diverse
perceptions of the natural world and their relations to it. For example, a
deer-hunter will have a different perspective of nature and the need for land
and animal conservation than a person whose primary contact with non-domestic
animal life is a visit to the city zoo, or viewing a television nature program.
These conceptions represent the ongoing struggle in late-twentieth-century
modern life to repeatedly evaluate and define humankind's relationship to the
1. This study of the Discovery Channel and its programming is part of an
unpublished dissertation research study in which I analyze the thematic
discourses represented in a week of prime-time programming on three leading
cable television networks. Because of the obvious space limitations which
accompany conference papers, this study will focus its analysis on the thematic
discourses represented in a week of Discovery's prime-time nature programming.
The primary data source for this study is prime-time programming (8:00-11:00pm,
E.S.T.) from Sunday (July 26, 1998) to Saturday (August 1, 1998) on the U.S.
Discovery Channel. This programming was recorded onto videocassettes in order
to facilitate a close textual analysis of
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