Cash Cab and other Discovery Channel cash grabs

Back in January, I worried with my infinite wisdom about an application to the CRTC by Discovery Channel Canada to allow game shows as part of its programming categories. I worried that this might be an excuse to import a U.S. British trivia show called Cash Cab into Canada, stretch the limits of the channel’s mandate and suck up some easy cash.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. The CRTC approved the change in its license, and Discovery announced that it was carbon-copying importing the format for use here. I still held out hope that the format would be predominantly educational in nature, and/or that the subjects of the questions would deal with science, technology and nature.

After watching a couple of episodes (you can see complete episodes online here), it seems my original fears were more than justified.

For those who haven’t seen it (or don’t want to see it), Cash Cab’s format has a guy driving a van through the streets of Toronto, and then surprising people who come aboard by telling them they’re on a TV game show they’ve never heard of (a part that’s either hilarious or awkward depending on your tastes). He then asks them questions, gives money for each right answer, and when they get three wrong they’re booted out of the cab.

It’s nothing more than a cookie-cutter trivia show with a lame hook. Some of the questions are certainly scientific in nature, but others relate to sports, business, history and even popular culture. It’s hard to distinguish these questions from the ones on every other trivia-based game show out there.

Discovery’s reputation: Destroyed in Seconds

For how bad Cash Cab is, Destroyed in Seconds is worse. This embarrassment of programming is essentially a carbon copy of World’s Most Amazing Videos (which currently airs on Spike TV), in all the bad ways imaginable. Here’s how both shows work:

  1. Find a video that shows some catastrophic event: a plane crash, a bridge collapse, an explosion. Usually this will be amateur video of poor quality, but that’s ok. In fact, it adds to the realness of the show.
  2. Ensure that nobody dies in the event that took place. You wouldn’t want to be accused of profiting off someone’s death, after all. You want miraculous escapes and/or recoveries here. Exceptions can be made if the video is really good and you don’t actually see any bodies.
  3. Show the video as a man with an exaggerated voice explains the situation (usually something along the lines of “it looks like an ordinary day, but in a few seconds their lives will be in mortal danger”), until the surprising, terrifying event happens.
  4. Have the narrator explain, as briefly as possible, what caused the catastrophy, as well as the aftermath.
  5. Show the moment of catastrophe over and over and over again. Slow-motion, zoomed-in, any different way you can think of. Have the narrator point out how the people on the video were “inches from certain death” or “moments from disaster” or “lucky to escape with only minor injuries”
  6. Move on to the next clip.

There is no educational value to this show whatsoever. You learn nothing other than what an explosion looks like.

Compare that with a show like Mayday (my personal favourite) which re-enacts airplane accidents (with cool computer graphics) and then explains very seriously and clearly what caused them and what has been done to ensure they don’t happen again. Or Mythbusters, which tests sometimes silly hypotheses, but does them in (mostly) scientific ways. Both have the idea of teaching viewers as the main focus, and entertainment is a convenient medium to do so.

For Cash Cab and Destroyed in Seconds, the main focus is to entertain. That’s not a bad thing, and these shows have their homes (Cash Cab on the Game Show Network, Destroyed in Seconds on Spike TV), but neither belong on the Discovery Channel.

If we’re going to continue with the idea that specialty channels should have protected formats (and you’re well within your rights to question whether that’s necessary anymore), we should honour those formats, not try to find ways around them to pad the bottom line.

11 thoughts on “Cash Cab and other Discovery Channel cash grabs

  1. Tyler

    Well argued, Fagstein. I agree with you that the Discovery Channel has trended toward sensationalism over the last few years. I remember when Daily Planet used to have regular astronomy and chemistry segments. I find that now it does little more than encapsulate what I’d call the pro-military-industrial complex lean of most of the channel’s programming. Not to be political, but the message seems to be: gadgets and machines are awesome, building huge things is great, and destroying things is even better (no matter the environmental cost, for example). This can be fun, but I find some programs end up as advertisements for car/jet/helicopter/ship manufacturers, and, more to the point, don’t have much science content. Thank goodness Jay Ingram still can infuse the Planet with a bit of seriousness. (On a side note, my friend, who has Discovery Civilizations was shocked that it wasn’t much in the National Geographic/History Channel theme she expected, rather a place for repeats of How It’s Made–a good show, but hardly in the right place. Perhaps the Discovery Channel Family has too many channels, and not enough content to spread around.)

    Mayday is a great show, for the reason you mentioned. I also like Canada’s Worst Driver/Handyman, because despite it’s being a reality show, it seems like the host, Andrew Younghusband, actually wants the participants to improve, and to help the audience avoid the same mistakes. It’s another example, along with Mayday and Mythbusters, where you can watch something crash, explode or fall apart, but also learn from the experience. With Dirty Jobs and Deadliest Catch, I feel we develop an appreciation for those working the less glamorous jobs that allow for our lifestyle, so I’d group them in the good category as well.

    As for your last question, I don’t have an answer as to whether or not Channels need to stick to protected formats. I suppose you could argue that it prevents channels from adapting and offering a range of programming. But you could also argue that the network format is actually the one out of date. CBC or NBC have to try to appeal to everyone, with sitcoms, dramas, sports, politics, even though speciality channels do a fine job (sometimes a better job) with those individually. I watch less live TV than I used to; I no longer have the networks’ weekly programming memorized, so except for a few great shows I won’t check out the networks that cater to the lowest common denominator all too often. I’ll spend more time with a speciality channel that I know offers something I’m specifically interested in. Assuming, of course, that they don’t try to become more like the networks.

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  2. Tim

    And that’s why I don’t subscribe to Discovery Channel, and further to what Tyler added, why I gave up in frustration/disappointment after trying Discovery Civilization. I was equally saddened when I tried History (which taught me that J.A.G. and N.C.I.S. are based on real historical facts (why isn’t this the Military Channel?!)).

    Remember when The Learning Channel taught you more than just What Not To Wear?

    None of the specialty channels seem to be bothered to respect their format, so why should the CRTC? Either clamp down or throw the rules out the window entirely. I’m pessimistic for the future of television in its current format either way.

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  3. silhouette

    Discovery Channel is all about machines and blowing things up. I remember when they had Wild Discovery everyday that was only nature shows for a full hour each day, I miss it.

    Why not add TLC into the mix as well, they’ve done a FULL 360 and completely changed their programming. I remember their shows being about history and that sort. Now it’s a reality TV channel for living. Discovery Channel is going this route slowly.

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  4. JF Prieur

    Yeah I lived abroad for 6 years and when I came back in 2006 I wondered when TLC and Discovery had become the motorcycle channel….

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  5. princess iveylocks

    So I guess leaving the Discovery Channel on to entertain the cat when I’m gone isn’t a good idea… unless I want to come home to a hole in the earth. Damn! I thought it showed gerbils and zebras and tame nature-related scenes!

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  6. Pingback: Fagstein » Taxi 0-22 $

  7. Becks

    I remember the first time I saw the Discovery Channel in the US…1989, before we had it here in Canada…it was awesome,, science, biology,astronomy, engineering,flight…it truly lived up to its name…and the History Channel back then was great also…and it actually dealt with History.
    I also wrote to History CA. a number of years ago, 5 or 6 I guess, rakeing them over the coals for airing NCIS pr JAG, I forget which, and demanding to know by what stretch of the imagination were either of these shows related to historical events. Needless to say I never recieved an answer.

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  8. George

    Well FAG. If your going to bash a television show simply because it’s too sophisticated for your simple mind, at least have the decency to blame the proper country of origin. In your own words….”I worried that this might be an excuse to import a U.S. trivia show called Cash Cab into Canada” Now! Do you see the problem with your uneducated statement? I didn’t think so because you’re probably not even intelligent enough to appear on Cash Cab. It’s not a U.S. trivia show. It originated in the U.K. Do you know where that is? If not I’d be happy to explain it to you. I’m guessing you truly have no life if all you can do is write about HIGHLY RATED television shows in a way that really makes you look like a real genius of the insane asylum! You don’t like TV? That’s fine. It probably doesn’t like you either…lol Get outside, get some exercise, lose that weight and maybe…just maybe…you’ll meet someone that motivates you to remove your lard ass from in front of the TV.

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