Monthly Archives: July 2010

The final word on Travel Channel (unless I think of more)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an entry on the blog about TV travel shows – how terribly uncreative and bland most of them are, in Britain and here, and how so many people still write to me about my show, Stranded, after four years.

Boy, did that stir up a hornets’ nest. I never expected so many of you to be that interested, frankly.

Well, anyway, there have been several developments since then. So here, quickly, before we all grow bored with the topic, is an update.

First, the blog generated another avalanche of belated support for Stranded from fans – bless you all; I only hope that level of allegiance spills over into the documentary I’m shooting currently – and also a steady level of disgust, apparently, with Travel Channel for canceling it. Not something that was intended, by the way, but I totally understand. There’s a general malaise out there these days. As TV viewers, we feel shortchanged by network executives who, after finally getting around to producing a decent show for once, axe it again almost immediately before it’s built an audience. Personally, I am still grieving the loss of Journeyman and Better Off Ted. Damn you, NBC and ABC respectively.

When it comes down to basics, my problem when I was filming Stranded was that I wanted to make an intimate travel experience that I shared with the viewers, revealing the ups and downs of a guy voyaging around the world alone, surviving on the kindness of strangers and exploring other cultures, other perspectives on life. Whereas the production company wanted to make a whiz-bang fast-paced adventure show.

Right there you can see the issue. Those two don’t go together well, and so the series behind the scenes became a constant battleground, with me on the one side seeking to make programs about people and cultures, and the producers on the other hand insisting on having lots of bungy-jumping and snowboarding and whatever else. I wanted spontaneity and living by the seat of your pants-type stuff; the producers insisted on planning everything down to the last detail, leaving barely any room for anything real to happen at all. In truth, I thrive and come alive in spontaneous situations. That’s my forte; it’s where I excel. So of course excessive planning was claustrophobic for me. I was forced to be an actor and often made to do three or four takes to ‘get a shot right’. Ultimately the American audience sensed the fakery and pretense of it all and tuned out.

At its core, the show was a great idea that could have worked – in fact, it did work to an extent, in that, when I got my way and did what I wanted to do, it was refreshingly different and very funny – but in the end it died as a result of too many unwanted cooks jumping on board and messing with the ingredients. There was also someone working with us who had severe anger issues and who could be a ferocious tyrant at times. That attitude, I noticed, seemed to generate so much fear and unhappiness among the staff and crew that the show felt doomed almost from day one.

In respect to Travel Channel, the general drift of the conversation seems to be, “What were they thinking, getting rid of one of their best shows ever and replacing it with one dopey series after another?” But since I don’t watch T.C., I honestly can’t comment on how dopey their recent series are, if at all. Then again, when you’ve experienced the cringing torpor induced by most travel shows over the years, you can understand anger mounting at a network when something really good and refreshingly original makes it into the schedules, only to be allowed to die on the vine.

A former executive from Travel Channel (and there are a lot of them these days, from what I hear) wrote to me commiserating with viewers’ disappointment that the show wasn’t better supported at the time. “I don’t think it ever got its due,” this person said. That seems to echo many people’s opinion. The email additionally assured me that there was no bad blood between me and the network at all, that was just a bad rumor. Most of the original management team and others had gone, so how could there be? Well, that’s something, at least.

One extra fascinating little snippet: it seems the show was axed in the end, not because of lack of devotion by viewers, but because it told the truth about the various locations, especially the bad ones. I didn’t know this, but apparently no travel network can allow that. Travel shows are exercises in PR, pure and simple. That’s why they’re so bland. If the producers want to go back and film in the same locations in future, they need to appease the local tourist office at all costs. That’s what killed Stranded: the perky little bugger was just too honest for its own good.  Of course, I’m kicking myself now. I wish I’d lied about everything – we’d be in season 9 by now.

So there you go. Who would have thought people would still remember? Not me, that’s for sure. And certainly not Travel Channel.Then again, with so much lame retardo rubbish being thrown at us on TV nowadays, as networks increasingly across the board try to pass junk off as entertainment and hope we don’t notice, maybe it’s not so surprising.

TV Swami – he proud and teary-eyed at fans’ support.

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Travel Channel – bad blood spills over.

Recently, I was contacted by a Hollywood producer. “You should be on television doing a travel show,” she said. “You’d be great at that.”

Oh yeah?

“Where have you been, lady?” I said – paraphrasing – “FYI, I did have a show. It ran on Travel Channel for two seasons and has since aired all over the world, garnering a whole new bunch of enthusiastic fans, especially in Brazil, where it seems to run on a continuous loop.”

“Great,” she said, jumping in, “well, I have contacts at the network and I’m going to suggest they give you a new show. It’s time you were back on the air.”

Oh. How amazing.

Truthfully, I hadn’t imagined myself ever having another TV show. I’d done it once, and that was enough. But she was so enthusiastic, and so convinced that the network would not only remember me, but simply rubber-stamp a new venture, that I left her to it. After all, there seemed to be a lot of support by the audience.

  • The managing editor of an Oklahoma newspaper complained to them, pleading for the series to continue.
  • Others sent in petitions. Instead of taking this as a sign that people liked the show, the network head wrote to ask them to stop, I hear.
  • A glowing review of the show just turned up on a Hawaiian website, four years late. Where were these people when we needed them?
  • One woman still has her TiVo set for it, she said recently, in the vain hope that it will come back.
  • Only yesterday I received this message on Facebook from a viewer: “We’re DONE with the Travel Channel,” it said. “and want to know who we could write to in order to bring back the Stranded show!…Please let me know if there’s anything we can do…we all miss you and want you back!” It happened with Futurama and Family Guy, I guess they’re thinking, and other shows short-sightedly axed by networks that returned to great success later.
  • One fan wrote today: “[T]he Travel Channel (save for Mr Bourdain) absolutely sucks nowadays. Programming run by committees KILLS creativity no matter what the medium. Would be great to see you back on the air again. Except for Bourdain on Monday nights, I couldn’t even tell you what’s on TC anymore, as I tuned out after you left.” Which is pretty harsh, right?  I never knew people felt so strongly or that they loved Stranded so much. But many more have echoed the same sentiment.
  • “I now boycott Travel Channel,” they tell me, “I won’t watch it any more since they cancelled your show.” Which is ridiculous, albeit quite gratifying.

“Oh for goodness’  sake, watch it,” I tell them. “You might find something else you like.”

And of course I laugh.

Alas, the T.C. and I haven’t been in touch for about four years, not since I was asked politely to stop redirecting viewers’  irate complaints to them. I do recall that we parted on good terms, however. Pat Younge, the guy who canceled my show in favor of making a sports show featuring Drew Carey, which was on its best day mediocre, if not downright awful, sent me an email. Told me he liked Stranded very much and was sorry it didn’t catch on as he’d hoped, then asked me to pitch him an idea for a new show. But I was tired. I’d shot, written, and helped produce 32 amazing episodes in 15 months. That’s a lot. Also, there were a couple of books I wanted to write. “Maybe later,” I said.

Now, four years on, later had finally arrived. I figured I’d be ready to dip my toe back in the water again and start afresh.

“Great,” the producer said. “I’ll set up a meeting.”

That was mid-June.

Then the bombshell hit.

Days after, I was busy picking out clothes for the meeting, and had just settled on a matador outfit when the phone rang. It was the producer’s assistant, sounding flustered. They called it off, she said, before it’s even fixed. “Apparently, there’s bad blood between you and Travel Channel.”

Well, you can imagine, I was shocked. There is?

But why? What could I possibly have done? How very odd.

It was the biggest mystery ever.

The contract I signed for the show forbids me from badmouthing them. That’s not my style anyway. Besides, the people I worked with were very pleasant and we got along great – I loved working for Travel Channel. Which makes this bad blood thing all the more perplexing. Though obviously, as a TV critic, I do have an opinion about travel shows in general, which I can voice openly, and it’s this: many of them are not very good.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

With the exception of Michael Palin’s various outings over the years, most of these programs are either exceedingly lame or drearily repetitive. I’d even call them retarded, were it not such a taboo word right now.

In other news: there was a show last year – on Discovery, I think – called Dhani Tackles the Globe, that was so contrived in its narrative and such a feeble concept to hang a travel show on that it fair winded me and I had to hold onto a banister ’til I got my breath back. Ten minutes of one episode was all I could get through, and that was it; I was done. Unbearable. “Who the hell thought it was a good idea to commission this?” I wanted to yell. “Get him on line 1, so that I can berate him for wasting ten minutes of my time. Oh, and get me Dhani on line 2. I want to tell him he’s cancelled.”

What I need is an override button so that I can veto some of the more ludicrous programming decisions. Please, someone, make that happen. When I lived in the UK I’d only have to watch ten seconds of Wish You Were Here?, and all the color would drain from my face. Most weeks I’d have punched the button before the end of the opening title sequence.

If I had to nominate one show that truly missed the mark in a cataclysmic way, however, I think it would be 1000 Places to See Before You Die, based on a bestselling book that I was convinced nobody could botch or mangle on its way to the screen. The concept was so simple and the execution so easy to pull off, even a laboratory rat high on experimental food colorings could make it work. Surely, the result would be magnificent and make us all want to travel in the hosts’ shoes. For once, I was genuinely excited.

Then I saw it.

As a TV reviewer, I remember being nonplussed bordering on apoplectic about what a terrible program it was. The concept had been left intact, but it was presented with zero creativity. TV by committee. All cooks and no broth. You could see the executives’  handprints all over it.

The producers took two ordinary people with seemingly no talent, charisma, or personality to speak of – I assume they won their casting in a raffle – and showed us various amazing places through mediocre eyes in a way that actually put me off going. “If the world is that boring and that bland, I’d rather stay at home,” I told my radio audience. Proof of the pudding:  the hosts had barely visited 17 of those 1000 places before the show was canned. Or maybe they died.

Sometimes you just want to wrench a jewel of a concept like this from the ostensibly clueless producers’  cold, dead hands and say, “Here, give it to me. Let me show you how it should be done. Oh, and by the way, you’re fired. Go and stand over there with Dhani.”

There are many more series around right now across several networks that are, in my opinion, just as complacent and undeserving of being shown in our homes. That’s why Stranded stood out. It didn’t pander. It was unique and real. It assumed you had intelligence and could keep up, and was very, very interesting, as well as funny and unpredictable. It gave you a perspective on different cultures that you couldn’t see in a complacent show. Most programs aren’t like that.

Globe Trekker clone, smiling – natch

For way too long, the travel TV landscape has been a ghastly sprawling quagmire of flimsy offerings hosted by dummies for dummies. People who finally make it onto TV, but then have nothing to say when they get there. Or by egocentric grown-up kids who’ll put anything in their mouth for a dare. Or else the shows are just wallpaper: brightly-colored moving pictures aimed at old people, because, as TV executives are taught at television-making school, old people love color and they love movement. But nothing real, that’s my point. Nothing you and I can relate to. No real characters saying and doing real things in a way that’s riveting to the audience at home, who tell us the inside story rather than fobbing us off with gloss and gimmickry, and some cozy facts we could have looked up for ourselves in a book.

Globe Trekker bucks that trend a little, but it’s like a giddy puppy, way too eager to please.

Samantha Brown, for my money, is still the most professional travel host out there, even if she does commit the sin of blandness with every bed she turns down, every pillow she squeezes and goes “Aaaah” at, and every waiter she pretends is walking into shot spontaneously to serve her when really his entrance has probably been rehearsed five times already and coordinated to the second. It’s contrived, it’s hokey, and Brown is bromide in pants and a blouse, but I love her to bits and hope she’s still squeezing pillows and going, “Aaaah” when I’m ninety.

Anyhow, that’s why, plain and simple, nobody watches cable travel shows any more, at least not in significant numbers anyway – a hundred thousand viewers is not uncommon, which is another way of saying that 365 million people are regularly boycotting your network – and also why dear old Travel Channel, for instance, which I always thought had such glorious potential to be something great and eye-popping on the TV dial, is traded constantly from one owner to another like a cow at market. It’s a terrible shame.

We really want it to succeed and be popular and make shows that we  love to watch. “Come on, T.C.,” we’re yelling communally, “show us travel, not pretty scenery. Give us intelligent commentary that is forthright and candid, not a bunch of trotted-out factoids that the local tourist office wants us to hear. Show us eager, enthusiastic, passionate traveling personalities who teach us about the world because they actually know something about the world, and make us eager to follow in their footsteps, not celebrities who just like being on TV and have been primed with relevant info by a team of researchers before they set off. And show us you have some truly original ideas and the balls to not only commission them but to see them through to greatness, rather than drop out at the first sign of pressure or when some bigger or brighter bauble comes along. As viewers, that’s all we ask. Then we’ll watch you in our millions, we promise.”

And you know what? We may be on the way to getting that. Travel Channel’s just changed owners yet again, and this time the new brooms are sweeping pretty clean, from what I hear. So there’s hope yet. Yay!

Veering off-topic for a second, I have a theory about why TV generally is in such a pickle. It’s very basic. The reason runs rampant across so many networks and is responsible for generating so much of the horribly trashy television we’re subjected to nowadays. Summed up, it’s this: good choices require passion, and most executives are not passionate about the shows they make.  They’re slaves to committees, focus groups, and numbers.

I mean, they’re passionate about some things. Overnight ratings, for example – nothing matters to them more. They’re passionate about their status as executives. They’re passionate about paying their mortgages and putting their kids through college and meeting their alimony settlements. In other words, they’re driven by survival, not love of the craft. As a result, they make formulaic, derivative, uninspiring, focus-grouped-to-within-an-inch-of-their-life shows, and do so as a way of keeping their jobs, not because their heart is in it or because they’re inspired to create something new that will take TV to the next level, which is what we, the audience, are craving. Fearful, they stick to what’s safe, recycling the latest fad – currently, in travel and the culinary areas, it’s masochistic hosts who eat weird food, but that will change at some point, and when it does, the networks will blindly and blandly follow, falling in with whatever comes next. It’s this lack of spunk and creativity that is the cause of the rot. Where are the leaders? Where are the people with backbone brave enough to step out and raise the bar?

One of my friends runs Nickleodeon. Thanks to his genius, they have several global franchises, including Spongebob Squarepants and iCarly. In the case of Spongebob, I know he had to champion this oddball concept over countless hurdles before it made it to the screen. Almost everyone opposed it except for him. The guy came to my birthday party recently and we chatted for a long while. I’m always amazed by his intelligence and how excited he is. He’s not only passionate about his shows, but has the conviction to make bold decisions and the balls to back them up. In that respect he stands out as an incredible visionary and also the kind of executive you want in charge of a network.

Similarly, the guy who commissioned my show five years ago was a visionary. To spare his blushes, let’s call him Mr. X. Mr. X is a risk-taker with the common touch, driven to create interesting content. He’s the executive who brought me, and also the amazing Anthony Bourdain, to Travel Channel – two of the best moves they ever made. Mr X sought to consign the bland travel shows and boring hosts of the past to the dustbin and replace them with appointment programming, featuring strong, opinionated presenters with a lust for their subject. I loved the personal investment he had in this plan. So refreshing.Then, shortly after, a new administration came in and….well we know what happened then. Luckily, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations was a break-out hit for them and gave them something to cling onto, mainly because he called the shots, and that man doesn’t take crap from anyone. Aside from this, though, the network veered more towards eccentric food shows on the one hand, and the kind of output that mass audiences don’t like on the other. Rather than succumb to this, I guess, Mr X made good his escape. Now he’s achieving great things at National Geographic, and I couldn’t be more delighted.

All of this is common knowledge and, as I say, very old news. Since then I’ve turned my back on it and moved on as well. Nowadays, everything’s good from my side. No bad blood here. So it’s a shock to find the network has been pissed at me all this time, and I never knew. Though after the problem was brought to my attention, I did uncover one interesting snippet: the executive who refused to meet me that day was in fact the woman responsible for producing 1000 Places To See Before You Die.

Maybe she heard me reviewing it and took umbrage.

“Aaaah,” I thought, “of course she wouldn’t want to work with me. It would mean doing something innovative and different, wouldn’t it? Plus, I am passionate about travel. That makes it a double no-no. I get it now.”

Just last week, I happened to speak with a phenomenally gifted psychic called Christopher Emmer in Sedona. Intrigued, I asked him about the so-called bad blood issue, and he confirmed it. “It’s not that they hate you,” he said, “but one person has spread bad feelings like a virus, contaminating everything. They’ve no reason not to give you a show, and you would be good for the network, but they’ve bought into the gossip and it’s unlikely anyone there is perceptive enough to see past that.”

He also reminded me that Scripps, T.C.’s new owners, is downsizing rapidly. Many people have been laid off, with more to come, which is always tragic to hear, though I wonder if they’re picking the right ones. Mediocre, timid executives with no vision make mediocre, whitewashed programs – trim the ones with no talent, Scripps, and leave the good ones, I implore you. Usually, it’s the other way around: the good people go and somehow, improbably, the weakest executives survive. Speaking of which, is it too much to hope that the woman who spread this rumor about me will be among the fallen? I’m not a vengeful person by nature, but that would certainly be a sweet treat indeed.

Anyway, I am glad I found all this out. Thank goodness for psychics. Without them, we’d never really know what was going on, would we?

You can read more about the raw meat of what goes into making a travel show like Stranded in my book Naked in Dangerous Places, which is now available in the US, the UK, and also Australia. In the meantime, here’s a clip from the show, which some ardent viewer stuck on YouTube. The comments below it are fascinating. One or two haters, as you might expect, then a whoooooooole bunch of lovin’.

TV Swami – he say NO to having bad feelings about Travel Channel. Nevertheless, he still perplexed.

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