On December 7, 2014, Discovery Channel is planning on airing a new “wildlife special” called Eaten Alive. Eaten Alive has a relatively simple premise: a man is going to let himself be eaten by a green anaconda while wearing a snake-proof suit. You know, for science.
Many people have been making the argument that this is little more than a dangerous stunt designed to boost ratings. As Slate’s Laura Bradley rightly points out, there’s little “scientific” value to be gained from feeding a live person to a giant snake that couldn’t be learned through having the poor thing swallow a camera. This interpretation of “education” is dead on arrival.
An alternative interpretation of Discovery’s decision to air the program is that they’re aware there’s little learning in seeing a dude stuffed into a giant snake. But by drawing attention to anacondas in all their power and awe, they’ll spur peoples’ interest in the giant reptiles. Media scholars describe this as agenda-setting. Typically applied to the news media, agenda setting theory argues that the media can draw our attention to a topic and make us think about it by presenting it as important. In this sense, Eaten Alive is fantastically successful. The Internet is abuzz with talk of the show, even if much of it has been critical. This is certainly good for Discovery.
Whether all of this attention is a good thing for snakes is another question altogether. A case can be made that the agenda being pushed by the Discovery Channel is actually this one: watch the Discovery Channel. And that message is being promoted at the expense of both the anaconda featured in the show and snakes more generally.
The program doesn’t situate itself as an educational endeavor that respects the animal. Within the first thirty seconds of the trailer, the snake is already being described as “dangerous.” Scientific research isn’t mentioned at all. Additionally, the trailer’s focus is on the exotic, “unexplored” locale (an odd choice of words, given that people have been living in the Amazon for thousands of years) and the threat posed by the animal. The snake is portrayed as – literally – a man-eating monster, not a creature worthy of our respect and protection.
Unfortunately, audience members will tend to accept this depiction of anacondas as dangerous because they haven’t seen any other interpretations that counter it. With few notable exceptions, snakes are presented by the media as dangerous and deadly. Scholarship has shown that media exposure can shape peoples’ understandings of the world, particularly on questions of science and areas in which they have little first-hand experience, Most people are not closely familiar with snake biology, so they’ll readily accept new information from a program like this, particularly if it presents itself as “scientific.” The take-away message will be one of fear and revulsion.
I will point out here that I haven’t seen the show, only the trailer. My hope is that the trailer is a gimmick designed to get people to tune in, and that no one – human or reptile – is physically injured in the program’s production. In the best of worlds, the lack of snake-consuming-human-being action would be the springboard for a conversation on snake behavior. Specifically, it could highlight how snakes are typically not aggressive unless threatened, and how important they are for our ecosystems.
But in the larger sense, the damage has already been done. By pitching the show to the audience as “giant snake eats a guy alive,” Eaten Alive feeds into the narrative that snakes are dangerous to human beings. Some people won’t see the show and will never get the counter-message (if any exists). Others will disregard any educational efforts being made, particularly if they’re overshadowed by gratuitous, sensational footage. A few of these people will take the next step and kill snakes they find out of a misplaced fear, stoked by the media.
The program’s host, Paul Rosolie, tweeted that he’d never hurt a snake. It’s too bad that, by starring in a show like this, he already has.