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Interview: Rolf Potts

Last week, travel writer Rolf Potts detailed what might be the most mind-numbing journey of his professional career:  5 straight days spent watching The Travel Channel. In his essay Around the World in 80 Hours (of Travel TV), which can be checked out over at Gadling, Potts touches on everything Travel Channel – from Ghost Adventures (“Imagine three stoners with community-theater experience getting together to reenact the Blair Witch Project.”) to Samantha Brown (“A part of me imagines her sitting on the floor of a trash-strewn Hell's Kitchen apartment, snorting crystal meth and listening to Danzig records while she drills hollow-points into ammunition for her .50-caliber Barrett M82 sniper rifle.”). Also, in what has to be a first for gonzo television marathon experiments, at one point Potts is nearly robbed.

Go check out the essay, then come back here for our interview with Rolf.

Rolf Potts: Trapped with the Travel Channel

Culture Blues: Watching The Travel Channel for 5 straight days sounds like torture. What inspired you to put yourself through that?

Rolf Potts: I'm not much of a TV watcher, but I'd been hearing buzz (good and bad) about the Travel Channel ever since I got into travel writing 12 years ago. I'd appeared on the network on a couple of talking-head shows (and I hosted a one-hour documentary about American Thanksgiving back in 2008) but I rarely watched the channel outside a few random occasions on hotel-room TVs. The little I saw of the Travel Channel perplexed me, and -- as a hard-core traveler -- I was curious to know what kinds of things TV was telling us about how and where to travel. Over the years I'd seen writers like Bill McKibben, Hugh Gallagher, and Chuck Klosterman conduct interesting TV-marathon experiments, so I decided to do the same thing in a meta-travel context. Television literally means "seeing far," so this kind of stunt seemed ripe with all kinds of travel metaphors.

CB:   You had to have some inkling that the results wouldn't exactly be flattering for the network, right?

RP:  I knew that this experiment might make the Travel Channel look silly and insipid -- but I was surprised by the nature of its silliness and insipidity. I expected to see a bunch of chirpy, sanitized shows about international destinations, when in fact the network's programming rarely left the United States. If the 80 hours of TV I watched are any indication, the Travel Channel is less about travel than junk food and theme parks. I did little to hide my exasperation with this fact -- and I suppose that might rankle some people at the Travel Channel. The thing is, I can't really insult the Travel Channel's philosophy, because it doesn't appear to have one. What do shows like Ghost Adventures and Man v. Food have to do with travel? Very little, from what I can tell, but they attract sizable audiences, and that seems to be the Travel Channel's primary concern.

CB:  Are you worried you won't be asked back to be a talking head?

RP:  I'm not too concerned about being asked back for talking head gigs. If the Travel Channel wants travel experts who will toe the company line and praise the network, it won't have any trouble finding them.

CB:  Where does The Travel Channel fit in the world of the serious travel writer?

RP:  Serious travel writing versus travel TV programming is an apples and oranges comparison. Or, more accurately, a steak versus Twinkies comparison. The Travel Channel doesn't fit into the world of the serious travel writer, because it's so dissimilar from what serious travel writers do. That said, commercial travel journalism does contain a heavy dose of puff and fluff -- and in this way TV is a lot closer to service and PR-oriented travel writing. It's more about products and sensations than ideas.

I don't think this is the result of some grim conspiracy, though -- the problem is that TV as a medium doesn't tolerate much nuance or reflection. Put most serious travel writers in front of a camera and they would bore the shit out of a TV audience, since TV requires high energy and extreme simplification. There are some exceptions, like Anthony Bourdain -- but even he has admitted what he's up against. "It's definitely a devil's bargain when you have anything to do with television," he said in a Powell's Books interview a few years back. "It seldom elevates the level of discourse, let's put it that way." So in talking about TV versus literary writing we're obviously coming up against those old McLuhanesque arguments about how the medium is the message.

CB:  After 2 days, you state that out of 31 hours of programming, you've spent less than 2 hours outside the United States. What does that say about the programmers? The viewers?

RP:  A lot of the non-prime-time programming consists of cheap, clip-intensive "filler" shows with names like "Extreme Water Parks" and "Chowdown Countdown." I'm sure there's some return-on-investment algorithm at hand here -- and I'm guessing the folks who are watching cable TV in the early morning or the middle of the day are demographically more likely to hit an American theme park than an African safari. The fact that the Travel Channel's prime time programming is also so U.S.-slanted is a bit more perplexing. I'm guessing it's a cart-before-the-horse issue: America-based shows are cheaper to produce, and they get decent ratings, so that's what the network is aiming for. As I say in my story, I'm sure the Travel Channel would champion shows like "Macramé Wars" or "Man v. Hygiene" if such shows generated the right ratings.

So I think the viewers and the network are codependent in these programming decisions. And it could be that the current recession is somehow responsible for all the domestic and food-themed shows these days. But I'd reckon a big portion of the Travel Channel's audience consists of people who don't travel that much -- which in essence means my argument that the network should head overseas more is a faintly snobby position. A lot of my traveler friends who watch TV gave up on the Travel Channel a long time ago. It's as if cable TV needs a completely different network that appeals to people who are serious and passionate about world travel.

CB:  Of The Travel Channel's offerings, you position Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations as its one piece of counter-programming. It's also, along with Man vs Food, one of the network's two highest rated programs. To me, that suggests that either people really love Bourdain, or that there's a genuine interest in more "honest" travel journalism. Is that a reason to be hopeful? Or is Bourdain something of a unicorn?

RP:  I think Bourdain's popularity is a combination of his personality, his subject matter, and his candor. He's the only person on the Travel Channel whose show reflects his own unique sensibilities instead of some prefabricated formula. He's also a bit of a unicorn in that it's pretty rare to find someone who can make intelligence, nuance, and charisma translate into television.

Interestingly, the Travel Channel was keen on finding Bourdain-style hosts about four years ago. The network executives sent out a memo stating they wanted to find hosts who were "qualified insiders" – and this sent its production contractors scrambling after professional travel writers. I think 12 different production companies contacted me in 2007, and most of them quoted the memo in question. The problem, however, was that neither the production companies nor the network seemed to realize that Bourdain's key strength is projecting a unique, contrarian, personality-based point-of-view. I bring this up not to insinuate that I possess the necessary charisma for network TV, but because none of the production companies expressed interest in my point of view or my travel philosophy. They primarily just gave me generic screen tests and grilled me for show ideas. Other travel-writing colleagues of mine had the same experience. Bourdain had established himself by rising above the rote blandness of TV, yet the TV people I met seemed to be stuck in their rote, bland methods when trying to find his equivalent.

If I were trying to develop travel-TV hosts, I wouldn't stick actors and models and travel writers in a room in New York City and have them do screen tests. I'd pick ten or so seasoned, opinionated travelers and give them each, say, a $5000 budget to shoot their experiences on the road for a couple months. At worst the network would get some interesting webisodes -- and with any luck this kind of "field test" would reveal whose personality and point-of-view is best suited for a bigger investment in future, Bourdain-style programming.

CB:  If you were given free rein to program a night of The Travel Channel, what would you do with it?

RP:  That's tough, since it's easier to criticize TV programming than to improve upon it. I'm tempted to suggest more international themes, more travel-realism from its hosts and destinations -- but I think the Travel Channel has already cast its net too wide for this. Like most big cable channels, this network is looking for lots of eyeballs, and it's happy to dumb things down -- or deviate from travel themes -- accordingly. Whatever I chose for a night of Travel Channel programming would probably be too specialized and esoteric to hit the right audience numbers.

If travel TV is going to move in a more intelligent, travel-focused direction, the Travel Channel might have to spin off a smaller, boutique channel that appeals to people who take travel seriously. I'd foresee it being a mix of opinionated, Bourdain-style hosted shows, travel advice, specialty shows on wildlife or sports or culture, international news reporting, and perhaps some scripted shows that touch on travel themes. I've been working on a series of scripts for a travel mockumentary (think "The Office" meets a National Geographic series) that simultaneously explores and lampoons the genre -- and I'd love to think there might be a network clever and ballsy enough to embrace this kind of meta-programming.

Once again, you can check out Rolf's essay over at Gadling. He's also the author of a couple books with impressively long titles – Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel and Marco Polo Didn’t Go There:  Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer – both available on Amazon. You can keep up with Rolf on the web over at rolfpotts.com.

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  1. Rolf ROCKS!