The Discovery Channel was once a very dry but very earnest item in the basic cable lineup. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, it ran educational shows, medical shows, and science shows. But then, like so many of its non-broadcast competitors, the network embraced reality television. Since the early 2000s, the Discovery Channel has been the place to discover reality shows, narrative nonfiction, and salacious specials about survivalists, motorcycle builders, gun shop owners, bush people, lie debunkers, customizers of anything made out of metal, and any number of other interesting hobbyists and telegenic and charismatic representatives of subcultures most viewers didn’t know existed.
Because the Discovery Channel seeks out colorful individuals for its slew of reality shows, it seeks out (or purports to seek out) the realest of the real. Also, real life is filled with pitfalls. Here are some times when the Discovery Channel found its network stars embroiled in controversy.
Eaten Alive got everyone mad for nothing
In 2014, Discovery Channel announced Eaten Alive, a two-hour special featuring Paul Rosolie, a conservation advocate and snake expert, in his quest to locate a 25-foot-long anaconda he’d seen years before in the Amazon rain forest. Then, while wearing a protective suit covered in pig’s blood, he would allow the snake to consume and then regurgitate him. Why? To raise awareness of the need to save the rain forest, obviously. PETA condemned the televised stunt, arguing that it was cruel to provoke an animal, but the Discovery Channel argued that the snake would ultimately emerge unharmed. (And so would Rosolie — the network promised he would get out alive.)
Despite the concerns, Eaten Alive aired in December 2014 and it was ultimately much ado about nothing because Rosolie did not even get eaten alive. Worse, he didn’t even find the right snake. After traipsing around the jungle, he had to settle for a 20-foot anaconda. With ten minutes left in the show, he approached it in the water and successfully provoked it. Its mouth closed around Rosolie’s head and started to crush his arm … which is when Rosolie freaked out and called for his crew to shut down the stunt and pull him out of snake’s fatal clutches. In the end, those most angered by Eaten Alive were viewers who expressed their disappointment at not actually getting to see what was advertised in the show’s title.
Not-so-Alaskan Bush People
For almost a dozen cycles now, armchair survivalists and people who like the idea but not the practice of camping have dutifully followed Alaskan Bush People, the Discovery Channel show about the large and extended Brown family as they try to live way off the grid and not die in most remote parts of Alaska for months at a time. While the family is ostensibly from Alaska and certainly seem to embody the rugged Alaskan values they espouse on the show, not all of the family members actually live in Alaska all the time, which got them in trouble with the law. No, it’s not illegal to stretch the truth on a reality show, but it is illegal to claim tax credits as an Alaskan resident when you don’t live there. In 2014, not long after Alaskan Bush People premiered, a grand jury in Juneau issued indictments for members of the Brown family on felony charges of unsworn falsification and theft. Top dog Billy Brown and son Joshua Brown reached a plea deal, accepting fines and 30 days in jail while admitting they had left Alaska in October 2009, stayed gone until August 2012, but still accepted the subsidy that full-time residents receive from state oil money.
It’s not terrorists, it’s Sons of Guns
Airing on the Discovery Channel from 2011 to 2014, Sons of Guns focused on a Louisiana-based company called Red Jacket Firearms which made and sold customized weaponry to police departments, private security companies, and gun enthusiasts. That kind of business necessarily involves dangerous and explosive equipment, including guns, of course, as well as ammunition and pyrotechnics. Sons of Guns also involved a bit of travel, as Red Jacket sold to individuals and organizations all over the country.
Shortly after the show’s first season debuted, two crew members parked a rental truck filled with pyrotechnics and a few firearms outside Terminal B at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Then, looking for a third member of their party, they left the truck unattended. Yes, they briefly abandoned a truck loaded with explosives and guns outside an airport. Even worse: They did it on September 11, 2011, the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks of 9/11. Airport security and the FBI located the owners of the truck and grilled them. The crew members were eventually released, and the locked-down terminal reopened after a couple hours.
MythBusters didn’t quite knock this town’s socks off
Adam Savage, Jamie Hyneman, and everyone else on the MythBusters crew educated as they entertained, informing the masses about how the world really works and debunking widely believed misinformation along the way. Savage, Hyneman, and the gang also seemed to virtually always find a reason to blow something up — you know, for science. The vast majority of the time, those explosions were conducted in a controlled environment with every precaution considered ahead of time. But with explosions, you really have to get all the boxes checked beforehand or things go sideways.
"It was a boom that was just — I had never heard anything like that before, it was really weird," resident Sherril Stephens told KCRA TV, shortly after a MythBusters explosion in 2009 knocked her off her couch and shattered a window in her house in Esparto, California. Seeing a plume of smoke and dust rise about a mile outside town, locals thought there might have been a plane crash or a building explosion. It was nothing that tragic, fortunately. It had merely been those pesky busters of myth, attempting to see if the phrase "knock your socks off" had any basis in reality. They’d blown up 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate to remove the socks from a mannequin, but they didn’t realize the explosion would be as big as it was. MythBusters paid for several broken windows in and around Esparto.
Naked, Afraid, and Boycotted
There are tons of reality shows about people trying to survive in the wild, either in groups (Survivor) or alone (Survivorman). But only one show goes all the way, denying participants modern conveniences and also their clothes. That’s Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid, a survival show about forced nudity, which is also kind of a dating show in that the contestants are often strangers of opposite gender. But despite a bunch of naked, fit people hanging around together in the middle of nowhere, Naked and Afraid is hardly a titillating show — those people are literally naked and afraid, be it of wild animals, starvation, exposure, or freezing to death. They’re too busy hunting for shelter and modesty-providing leaves to really work on their personal relationships.
One Million Moms, an organization dedicated to decency and family-friendliness throughout all media, encouraged its members and supporters to boycott Naked and Afraid upon its 2013 debut and demanded that Discovery Channel straight up cancel the show because they believed it to be filthy. "Discovery should be ashamed to air nudity and then call it entertainment," the group wrote in a statement. Discovery never responded to the boycott, nor (as of this writing) has it canceled Naked and Afraid.
It’s no myth that the MythBusters upset some credit card companies
Besides Discovery Channel reality shows, another constant in cable TV programming is alarmist commercials for special wallets that claim to block hackers’ attempts to steal information from radio frequency identification-enabled (RFID) credit cards. It turns out that techno-criminals really can do that, and in 2007 MythBusters tried to do an episode where hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman would prove it. At the 2008 Last Hacking on Planet Earth conference (via CNET), Savage claimed that the installment was scrapped mid-production due to objections from advertisers in the technology and credit card sectors in a conference call with Discovery Channel brass. "Texas Instruments comes on along with chief legal counsel for American Express, Visa, Discover, and [MythBusters personnel] were way, way outgunned," Savage said. "Discovery backed way down, being a large corporation that depends upon the revenue of the advertisers."
Afterward, Texas Instruments spokesperson Cindy Huff told CNET that her company just had some questions for MythBusters about how they planned to broach the topic, and said it was MythBusters who decided not to pursue the episode. After that, Savage had to retract some of his words. "I have to admit that I got some of my facts wrong," Savage said in a statement, revealing that he hadn’t actually been on the conference call. Nevertheless, MythBusters did eventually air an episode about RFID, but didn’t address the technology’s possible security flaws.
Death in Vegas
American Casino, which aired on Discovery in 2004 before moving to sister network the Travel Channel the next year, gave viewers an inside look at the day-to-day business and operations that take place behind the scenes in one of the most secure and secretive places in the country: a glitzy Nevada gambling resort. (While not focusing on an establishment on the famous Las Vegas Strip, it featured the Green Valley Ranch casino and hotel in suburban Henderson.) American Casino didn’t rely much on the soap-opera-like personal clashes that define most reality TV shows, but it provide for some shocking and tragic off-camera scandal. Michael Tata was featured on the show’s first season, going about his job as vice president of hotel operations. In July 2004, while Discovery was in the middle of airing American Casino, Tata died at age 33. A medical examiner later determined the death to be accidental, likely due to a combination of alcohol and fentanyl, an extremely powerful opiate painkiller. American Casino got bumped from Discovery’s lineup due to a scheduled hiatus (it was Shark Week) but producers got back to work making more episodes less than a month after Tata’s death.
Man vs. Wild vs. Truth
About the worst thing a reality show can do is fake it. It makes viewers feel silly for investing so much time and emotional bandwidth in a series only to find out that it was staged. Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild featured military-trained British survivalist Bear Grylls as he ventured out into the wilderness with little more than his special set of skills. He always made it through … in part because the dang thing was super staged.
After the first season of the show aired, a crew member told the Sunday Times that Grylls wasn’t always sleeping on twigs and leaves, but in a nearby hotel. On another occasion, an episode implied Grylls built himself a sturdy raft, when it fact a crew had previously built it to see if it would float, then carefully dissembled it so Grylls could put it together himself. And those wild horses Grylls encountered? Those were from a horse rental place. When confronted with all this, Grylls didn’t deny it — he apologized. "If people felt misled on how the first series was represented, I’m really sorry for that," the host told the BBC." Meanwhile, the Discovery Channel owned up to how "isolated elements" had not been "natural to the environment," or, you know, fake.
American Guns ran afoul of the IRS
As American Chopper was to motorcycles, American Guns was to firearms. It showcased the goings-on at the Wyatt family’s Gunsmoke Guns shop in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. In December 2012, Discovery Channel canceled American Guns and pulled reruns, too. The network claimed it had decided weeks earlier to not renew the show, but it was only announced after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. But even if that hadn’t happened, Discovery likely would’ve distanced itself from American Guns soon anyway, because a massive scandal broke out at Gunsmoke Guns.
Shortly after a 2013 break-in and robbery, the IRS closed down Gunsmoke to perform a search. A month later, an affidavit related to that search was made public. It all goes back to 2010, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives received a tip that Gunsmoke, under manager Rich Wyatt, possessed six illegal firearms. That prompted a closer look at Gunsmoke’s records, which revealed that the Wyatts didn’t actually own the store as their show implied, but Wyatt’s signature appeared on sales tax returns from 2008 to 2011. Nobody’s signature appeared on several other years’ worth of tax returns because they weren’t filed for a number of years. The government also alleged that the Wyatts underreported their wages to steal from the business, as evidenced by multiple large real estate and car purchases. In 2018, Rich Wyatt received a 78-month prison sentence for gun dealing and tax charges.
Jesse James didn’t clear the air
Before he was best known as Sandra Bullock’s husband who cheated on her and then dated fellow reality TV celebrity and tattoo enthusiast Kat Von D, Jesse James was a reality show star, the central figure on Discovery Channel’s 2002-06 motorcycle series Monster Garage. The show followed James and a team of mechanics, fabricators, and artists as they attempted to do extreme things to vehicles. (For example, they tried to turn a DeLorean into a hovercraft, and a pair of compact cars into Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots.) James came to the series with solid credentials, as the owner and main builder of souped-up and custom motorcycles at West Coast Choppers.
James also stakes historical and familial claim to his bad-boy image: He says he’s a distant descendant of the Wild West scofflaw Jesse James. It would seem that the 21st-century Jesse James broke the law, just like his 19th-century namesake. The California Air Resources Board levied a fine of more than $270,000 at James and West Coast Choppers, charging man and business with customizing and selling bikes that wildly ignored the Golden State’s clean air regulations. An investigation found that his "monsters" didn’t come with state-certified exhaust and fuel system emissions gear, and that they generated 10 times the legal limits of hydrocarbons. James and company worked on the bikes in question between the years of 1998 and 2005, overlapping the time Monster Garage was on the air.
Making MythBusters can be a blast
MythBusters spent a lot of time on huge, trailer-flattening, Buster-launching explosions, but there were also smaller, more controlled explosions. Early one morning in December 2011, the show visited a bomb range in Alameda County, California, about 25 miles north of San Jose. They had been there more than 50 times already. This time they brought along a cannon built especially for the show and used a few times to test the trajectory of a softball-sized cannonball. The projectile was intended to blast through a few barrels of water and a wall of cinder blocks and then come to rest somewhere in the protective hills around the bomb range.
Well, the cannonball missed the water barrels. Those were supposed to slow its flight, but since that didn’t happen, it soared through the wall and bounced off one of the hills and into the nearby town of Dublin. The cannonball kept going, through the door of a house, out the wall of an upstairs bedroom, and through the window of a minivan 100 feet away. That house was occupied by three people at the time, who somehow didn’t even wake up. MythBusters sent a producer to the home and agreed to meet with the family’s insurance companies.