Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV): Part 4

Where does the Travel Channel take us? Rolf Potts embarks on a
one-week gonzo experiment to find out

AMERICA: IT’S WHERE FAT PEOPLE ARE MADE

Day 4, Hour 50: 9:25 am. The narrator of a show called Breakfast Paradise has just announced that he’s found a restaurant that will indulge my “deepest cereal fantasies.” An hour ago, at a Texas barbecue joint, the same narrator suggested that I would “need a shower after plowing through a mountain of mouthwatering meat.” This voice-over specialist, who according to the credits is a guy named Mason Pettit, narrates most of the Travel Channel‘s non-hosted shows. All of his lines — be they about cheeseburgers or deep-fried candy bars — take on the same breathless, self-excited cadences that commercials use when trying to convince football fans that drinking light beer makes them more attractive to beautiful women.

Curious to know how much more food programming I’ll have to endure over the next two days, I break one of my self-isolation ground rules: I crack open my laptop, pay the hotel’s $9.95 Internet access fee, and check the Travel Channel’s broadcast schedule online. Here, I discover that — in the 31 hours of television I have left to watch — 6 hours are devoted to theme parks (Extreme Terror Rides, Extreme Water Parks), 2 hours are slated for a reality game-show (America’s Worst Driver), and a whopping 23 hours are given over to binge-eating or junk food (Man v. Food, Chowdown Countdown, etc). None of these shows suggest that travel might involve non-consumer experiences, and none of them appear to stray beyond the borders of the United States. Even shows that imply international scope are weirdly agoraphobic: Yesterday, a show called World’s Best Megastructures ignored the Pyramids of Giza and the Great Wall of China, electing instead to focus on such engineering feats as the New Orleans Superdome and the Mall of America.I wonder how an Asian or a European might perceive this kind of programming. In previous decades, the global popularity of TV shows like Gunsmoke, Dallas, and Baywatch lent a breezy sense of glamour and intrigue to the notion of American identity. The Travel Channel, on the other hand, seems to suggest that 21st-century Americans are noisy, incurious half-wits who spend most of their time riding roller coasters and gobbling down oversized portions of greasy food.

THE PRO WRESTLING OF CULINARY RIVALRY

Day 4, Hour 51: 10:41 pm. I’m trying to think of a way to describe the sensation I get while watching a series called Food Wars. The best analogy I’ve come up with is “time travel”: I feel like it’s 1991, and the writers of The Simpsons have dreamed up a farcical future where life’s most banal diversions have been transformed into idiotic game shows.

At its most basic level, Food Wars doesn’t seem like an inadvertent parody. The program explores how a given dish (hot wings, Italian beef, cheese-steak) has evolved into an authentic expression of culinary life in an urban community. Each episode examines local restaurant rivalries (Al’s Beef v. Mr. Beef in Chicago; Duff’s v. Anchor Bar in Buffalo), and uses blindfolded taste-tests to determine which joint serves the best meals.

Unfortunately, the show’s producers have infused these civic food rivalries with a sense of hyperbole and fake enthusiasm usually reserved for professional wrestling matches. Each Food Wars episode features awkwardly staged sequences where supporters of rival restaurants march through the streets waving homemade banners and screaming insults at each other; other segments feature breathless talk of “top-secret” recipes, and commercial-break cliffhangers promising “shocking” conclusions. The host, a petite, high-strung brunette named Camille Ford, spends a good portion of each episode pumping her fist in the air and yelling her lines over crowd noise. Dramatic music accompanies the final segment, as portly white folks masticate chicken wings or beef sandwiches in slow-motion close-up, their chins smeared in hot sauce, their teeth slicked with animal fat.

According to the schedule, Food Wars: Buffalo and Food Wars: Chicago will be rebroadcast twice more today — which means I have until bedtime to come up with a plausible theory for how shows like this end up on the Travel Channel.

TV MARATHONER GETS STUFFED

Day 4, Hour 60: 7:32 pm. Midway through the evening showing of Food Wars I lose my patience and head downstairs to wander the gaudy, mazelike corridors of the Plaza Hotel casino. I’ve been living on bottled water, baby carrots, and trail-mix all week, so I’ve decided to splurge on a meal at the Plaza’s buffet restaurant, which is, appropriately, called “Stuffed.”

Like most thrift-conscious Middle Americans, I cannot discipline myself in all-you-can-eat environments. After several platefuls of lukewarm food (fried chicken, mashed potatoes, lasagna), I stumble back to my room, unbuckle my belt, and turn on an episode of what turns out to be Extreme Pig Outs. Watching this show on an overfull stomach is kind of like barricading oneself into a broom closet to watch a show about claustrophobia. Nauseated, I fetch the remote, and — for the first time in more than 60 waking hours — change the station.

As I surf through the channels, I’m stunned by how much travel programming I find outside of the Travel Channel. VH1’s Price of Beauty shows Jessica Simpson interacting with Indians in Bombay; the Discovery Channel’s Man v. Wild shows Bear Grylls trekking through the Moroccan Sahara. An Animal Channel program examines the lives of Africans who live on an elephant preserve; a History Channel show depicts Mexican migrant workers embarking on a less-than-romantic sojourn through California’s produce fields.

I flip my way through the channels, spotting more depictions of the non-American world in one hour than I’ve seen in four days of watching the Travel Channel.

WHY DOESN’T THE TRAVEL CHANNEL TRAVEL?

Day 4, Hour 64: 11:53 pm. After three hours of channel surfing, I’ve noticed that my lizard-brain subconscious is intrinsically drawn to flashy, noisy, high-energy shows. The sight of an exploding car, for instance, sucks me into 20 minutes of the Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters; the spectacle of a soccer riot inspires me to watch two segments of MSNBC’s Caught on Camera. At one point I’m flipping through channels when I’m entranced by a mob of frumpy Americans chanting in unison inside of a restaurant. I watch, intrigued, for ten full beats before I realize that the mob’s attention is focused on three people eating hot wings.

I have, it appears, been suckered into another rerun of Food Wars.

Pay close attention to the end-credits of Food Wars, and you’ll see that it’s created by the same production company that found ratings success with Man v. Food. These two programs are emblematic of what appears to be the Travel Channel’s status quo: Both shows are less about travel than junk food; both are saturated with overstatement and phony energy; both are hosted by loud, charismatic actors whose talents lie less in culinary insight than standard-issue enthusiasm (sample comment: “I’m a little star-struck by this food’s awesomeness!”). In addition to being able to lure in random channel surfers (including me) with such off-kilter energy, both Food Wars and Man v. Food use a contrived sense of competition to tease out that old Aristotelian dramatic question: “How will this all turn out?” Somehow, this keeps enough folks watching to make these shows popular.

Fifty years ago, historian Daniel Boorstin noted that mass media is less about its content than its audience. “The mass, in our world of mass media, is the target and not the arrow,” he wrote in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. “It is the ear and not the voice. The mass is what others aim to reach.” As I watch Food Wars for the third time today, I sense that the Travel Channel has no guiding philosophy beyond raw ratings numbers. Were producers able to attract a sizeable audience for, say, Macramé Wars, or Man v. Hygiene, I’m certain the Travel Channel would make room on its schedule.

I have 16 waking hours left in my television marathon, and it feels like the whimsical travel metaphors that inspired this experiment have yet to find much traction: I may as well be watching a network called the “TV Channel.”

[Read more of Rolf Potts' series Around the World in 80 Hours here]