So for the past ten years or so, the airwaves have become infested with something called “Reality TV,” where carefully-scripted and fully-contrived scenarios are presented to fill the empty portions of our brains -- sort of like blowing insulation into our heads. If you want to see reality, “Reality TV” will help you about as much as buying a book from an “Adult Book Store” will teach you about being an adult.

Similarly, I’ve always had some mixed feelings about Earth Day. There are countless reasons to appreciate a day that’s set aside to focus on our sometimes-dysfunctional relationship with the planet. And every April 22, there are also a few smarmy and insincere efforts by chronic polluters to market their way into environmental virtue. After years of lobbying against virtually every environmental protection bill under the sun, I really don’t think that “Every Day Is Earth Day” at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (Note: The “Every Day is Earth Day” cliché is very, very old, and has been used by nearly everyone. A non-scientific Google search for the phrase yielded 744 results. A time out is in order).

But give TV its due. This month, I’m looking forward to several strong environmental documentaries.

PBS Frontline rolls out a two-hour special, Poisoned Waters, on Tuesday April 21. Veteran PBS and former New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith tours two estuaries that are postcard-pretty, but poster children for our inability to clean up our act. Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound are a bi-coastal tragedy in the making: Both waterways have been the focus of decades’ worth of calls for a cleanup. Both are as threatened as ever.

Two other flagship PBS shows, Nature and NOVA, also weigh in with solid programming: Nature debuted a show on declining amphibian populations last night. Frogs: The Thin Green Line will re-air in most markets this week. The following week, a three-part extravaganza called Deep Jungle debuts, shot in Borneo, the Amazon, Cambodia, and Guatemala. On April 21, NOVA deploys the Magliozzi Brothers, the MIT-educated grease monkeys who host the Car Talk radio show, in search of fuel-efficient and alternative vehicles in a segment called Car of the Future.

The PBS Journey to Planet Earth series presents “The State of the World’s Oceans” on March 19, hosted by Matt Damon. Discovery’s Planet Green cable network is planning “a 360 approach” to a month’s worth of Earth Day programming. Their press release says that, “Every Day Is Earth Day at Planet Green.” (Same tired cliché, deployed by the other side of the environmental spectrum.)

Another intriguing one is lined up for a cable network I have to admit I’ve never watched: The Fine Living Network has an April 22 show hosted by Jeffrey Hollender, the green marketing guru and boss of Seventh Generation. The show is called Big Green Lies, and Hollender promises to de-mystify some of the “myths” about living green: Cloth vs. disposable diapers, organic foods, hybrids vs. convention gasoline vehicles, and more.

PBS’ Frontline is also sponsoring a webcast this Wednesday, April 8, in connection with their Poisoned Waters documentary. Current EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Bill Ruckelshaus will headline the event. Ruckelshaus led the agency twice -- at its birth, when the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were signed into law by that ol’ treehugger, Richard M. Nixon; and in the mid-1980s, when he was pressed into action to bail the agency out of scandal. You can access the 1pm ET webcast here.

The sum of these programs is a fairly unhappy story. But happy watching anyway. This has a lot more to do with reality than anything we now call “Reality TV.”


Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)

Media Mayhem: Real reality TV
Get your remotes ready. Some strong programming is coming up in advance of Earth Day.