The Travel Channel is one of Cable’s niche networks. Like its companions The Food Network, The History Channel, or even something like Court TV, Travel is aimed at a specific demographic–in this case those interested in exploring the globe. Like travel literature or periodicals like Outdoor Magazine, The Travel Channel is just another fix for those in the mood for some armchair traveling. Since its inception in 1987 it has produced a handful of stellar programs and introduced the world to televised poker (hard to say if this was a net positive), still twenty years later the network seems to be lacking in quality.
To be fair, like most cable networks The Travel Channel has to tackle the obstacle of providing programming for nearly 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Half the time the network falls on its own glut of original documentaries with titles such as, “Steak Paradise,” “Extreme Water parks,” “UFOs over Illinois,” “21 Sexiest Beaches,” “All You Can Eat Paradise,” and, well, you get the picture. The remaining time is spent airing and re-airing its staple series, the majority of which are overly produced fluff. There’s Samantha Brown, the overly exuberant host of such tame travel shows like “Samantha Brown’s Passport to Great Weekends,” “Passport to Europe” and “Samantha Brown’s Disney Favorites”, who is to the Travel Channel what the fluffy Sandra Lee is to The Food Network’s show, “Semi-Homemade Cooking.” Both show the lighter and easier side of their trade and both have about as much emotional charisma as cardboard.
“Cash and Treasures” attempts to show viewers where to find booty in their backyards, however, the chances of said viewers actually leaving the couch and picking up the shovel are slim.
This year The Travel Channel introduced “America The Wright Way,” a short-lived series (currently in hiatus) following British TV traveling guru Ian Wright around the U.S. Wright, a veteran of the Mecca of all travel programs, BBC’s “Globe Trekker,” has a wining personality when taken in small doses. Here the Travel Channel execs seemed to have turned this well respected traveler into a clichéd caricature of the English.
“Most Haunted” is just one of many Travel Channel programs still clinging to the notion that viewers still want to watch so-called “officials” hunt ghosts and other paranormal activity. Spooky reality TV, which begs the question “are you a believer,” may have some fooled (after all the show is currently in its tenth season) but in reality is nothing more than sensationalist television about eerie buildings filmed in night vision.
Finally there is that “Bizarre Foods” guy, Andrew Zimmern, quite possibly the worst television personality out there. Zimmern somehow managed to get lucky in terms of ratings because people apparently can’t get enough watching another man eat foods unfamiliar to cautious Americans. His show came on the heel of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” (who I will spend the remainder of this column discussing) and serves as a more extreme extension of seeking out the less desirable food groups that the majority of the planet eats daily. The problem with Zimmern isn’t so much the food (considering the Western world is a bit spoiled when it comes to what we consume) but rather his methods of delivery. Rather than simply describe the dishes like a normal person Zimmern insists on adding his own ridiculous commentary no hesitating to reiterate what bizarre bit he’s about to dine on. During a recent excursion to Beijing while chowing down on a deer’s nether regions Zimmern joyfully exclaims, “the penis is extremely chewy, very chewy,” most likely a television sound bite first.
While The Travel Channel seems to have struck out more in recent years there have been some successes. Global adventurer Jeff Corwin is the go-to man for all things Alaska and American West related and continues to provide informative windows into the unwavering natural beauty of the United States.
For those curious about the way things work, ex-“Cheers” cast member John Ratzenberger hosts “Made in America,” a quick 30-minute show chronicling how various everyday things are produced in this country. Ratzenberger’s is truly a niche program but fascinating nonetheless.
Arguably The Travel Channel’s best move in recent years was wooing Anthony Bourdain away from the Food Network in 2005 and giving him “No Reservations,” the networks one truly brilliant series.
The allure of Bourdain has always been his knack for the English language. Sure he’s a chef and food enthusiast first and foremost, but deep down he’s also a writer and to some extent a want-to-be poet of the culinary world. “No Reservations” combines his witty and unique way of looking at global cultural and culinary wonders with a determination to travel on and off the beaten path.
He’s covered places as remote and misunderstood as Uzbekistan, to more lively and well-known destinations, such as New York or Paris, always showing that despite borders and distances there is a global appreciation of food in its many varieties. While some consider Bourdain overly cocky or completely overrated with devout foodies labeling him a sell-out, his show is highly unique, always informative and eye opening, and currently the only reason to watch the Travel Channel. With the new season currently underway Bourdain has already taken viewers to the mysterious Southeast Asian country of Laos, a misunderstood Saudi Arabia and Colombia, and most recently to Tokyo, a culinary capital of the world, according to Bourdain.
The Travel Channel is in desperate need for a complete overhaul and a new lineup of programs. The world is a big place and there are so many opportunities to provide audiences with a window into what’s out there. Until the network unleashes its next hit we’ll have Bourdain and the many reruns of “No Reservations” to fall back on.