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Authentic Survival, Please

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There have been an unusual number of survival shows on TV in recent years. First, there was Survivorman with host Les Stroud on Science Channel (and later Discovery Channel). Each week, Les would drop himself off in some hypothetical survival scenario (plane crash, snowmobile wreck, etc) and do what he could to survive seven days alone while filming the entire process. This was done without much food, if any, and sometimes in truly brutal conditions.

A short while later, Man vs. Wild appeared with Bear Grylls as the host. Unlike Les, Bear's series would have the support of a full film crew. This meant routes could be scouted, shots could be prepared, rappels could be rigged. The entire production component was amplified, resulting in a series more adrenaline-rush than survival training. Bear could jump out of helicopters, over cliffs, and into glacial waters. He'd eat foods of questionable cleanliness. Kids loved it and the show quickly found a huge audience worldwide ("Crazy adventure" translates well into many languages, apparently).

With the success of Survivorman and Man vs. Wild, Discovery launched two more survival-related shows this year: Dual Survival with primitive technologist Cody Lundin and military-survival expert Dave Canterbury and Man, Woman, Wild with former Special Forces survival expert Mykel Hawke and his journalist wife, Ruth England. Both Dual Survival and Man, Woman, Wild were renewed for second seasons this week, indicating that Discovery is continuing to fund this genre, which they further support with programs like Discovery Saved My Life -- a show that interviews people who survived life-threatening situations by doing what they saw Les, Bear or others do on TV.

Now, I appreciate that television is a medium of entertainment first and education second (or not at all, in many cases). And I appreciate that Les, Bear, Cody, Dave, Mykel and Ruth are hired to attract, maintain and build an audience -- that's how successful TV works. Furthermore, some of these guys are my friends, and I know hard they work to do their jobs well. But as a fellow survival instructor and someone who has been in the wilderness education industry for several decades, I take issue with the illusion of success and safety that these shows continue to project. True, some people may have been saved as a result of these shows, but I suspect that for every one person who survives in the wilderness because he did something he saw on TV, there are perhaps another two or three who died because they were unsuccessful doing the exact same (dangerous) thing.

This past March, I came across this posting -- "Les Stroud Fan Dies Trying Survivorman Techniques In Wild". As the author points out, one can't say whether a person who freezes in the woods was trying to do what he saw Les do. Without a hand-written note that clearly states a person's intention to replicate a challenge or journey, we simply can't know what led to his death, which is exactly my point. How many people have injured themselves by jumping off ledges into rivers without knowing the water's depth? How many have tried to hunt animals and, in the process, been bitten or attacked? How many have gone into the winter wilderness to do what they saw their favorite TV host do, only to freeze to death and never tell a soul? These kinds of statistics are almost impossible to collect but we do know that people today have far less wilderness competency than previous generations. Add to that the foolish ignorance of someone trying to replicate what they think they saw on TV and you have yourself a recipe for disaster.

Take it from me, someone who has hosted over fifty hours of TV for two major cable networks: spontaneous challenges are rarely spontaneous. The amount of time that goes into "health & safety" discussions for a segment can be considerable -- first, there are the insurance people (for the network and the production company), and then there are the producers, who must make sure everything will go according to plan. On location, you have the specialists who must triple-check everything before, finally, the host will "spontaneously" decide to jump off that cliff or wrestle that crocodile. On some shows, I think it's fine -- good TV often needs a jolt of adrenaline. But in certain genres, the illusion of authenticity that is maintained is a discredit to the audience. Filmmaker Chris Palmer's article in the Washington Post this past Tuesday reveals what many network execs don't want you to know: Many of the most touching "wild moments" we see in nature documentaries are anything but wild. A shocking number of the scenes that masquerade as "authentic" are, in fact, completely staged. When it's done with animals, it's a disservice to the audience and our understanding of nature. When it's done with survival scenarios, though, it's downright dangerous. I look forward to the day when authenticity and transparency are as important as ratings. It's not an easy battle to fight, but there are some of us who believe it's worth fighting.