Schwarz was friendly on the telephone, but his reaction to the growing furor over American Digger was guarded. After we spoke, Schwarz said he would pass SAFE’s comments and suggestions on to Scott Gurney. Yet no one at Gurney responded to several telephone messages that we left for Scott or Dierdre Gurney. If Spike and Gurney are nervous, they may have reason. For during the same week that the Change.org online petition gathered signatures, most people in the media world were transfixed by the heated drama that ensued after comments made by conservative radio giant Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were roundly condemned, causing thousands of Twitter messages to be directed at advertisers of Limbaugh’s radio program, forcing Limbaugh to issue a rare public apology. As we write this blog post, Limbaugh himself claimed that he dialed the number that advertisers were using to cancel their contracts, and got a busy signal.
Could Spike executives and Gurney Productions be asking themselves: how many Change.org signatures and how many Tweets in a focused campaign would cause advertisers to think twice about promoting their products on American Digger? We may soon find out.
During our conversation, Spike’s David Schwarz described American Digger as “harmless entertainment” that featuring, as a August, 2011 Spike press release says, “dynamic characters that exist in high risk/high reward situations.” Continuing: “There is treasure buried in the backyards of everyday Americans but they just don’t know it… until now. American Digger follows former professional wrestler turned modern day relic hunter Ric Savage [real name: Frank Huguelet] , as he and his team from [Huguelet's relic recovery firm] American Savage target areas such as battlefields and historic sites in the hopes of striking it rich and capitalizing on unearthing and selling bits of American history. The only thing standing in their way are the homeowners themselves, who Savage must convince to allow them to dig up their property using high-tech ground penetrating equipment and one very large bulldozer. What artifacts they find, they sell for a substantial profit, but not before negotiating a deal to divide the revenue with the property owners.” In short, the series combines the lure of a quick buck and a fascination with heavy machinery with a bit of history (recounted, in this case, by someone who barely made it out of high school) with a touch of the bravado that comes naturally to a former pro wrestler.
During our conversation, David Schwarz asked: “If someone digs in their own backyard and finds an old rotting pistol, what’s the harm in that?”
Assuming the resident actually owns the “backyard” where he or she is digging, or has permission to dig, the answer may depend on location. If the “backyard” is located on or adjacent to a protected Civil War battlefield, questions will be asked. In a February 15 Spike press release, for example, we learn that Frank Huguelet’s “first major find” was “a hunk of shrapnel he found at the site of the Battle of Cold Harbor, VA, [which] prompted him to form American Savage and continue his pursuit of history and riches.” According to Wikipedia, Frank Huguelet was living in North Carolina in 1996, retired from professional wrestling in 1997, moved briefly to Gettysburg, PA, and in 1998 moved his family to New Jersey, where they lived until moving to Virginia in 2009. But in 2008, one year before Huguelet moved to Virginia, the Civil War Trust placed the Cold Harbor battlefield on its Ten Most Endangered Battlefields list. So where, and when, did Frank Hugeulet come across the valuable Cold Harbor artifact(s) that prompted him to form his relic recovery business? Did he find the artifact(s) after moving to Virginia in 2009 on the approximately 300-acre endangered Cold Harbor battlefield itself? Or from the small park adjacent to the National Park Service’s Cold Harbor holdings? Or from the backyard of a nearby homeowner? The question is relevant, because Spike promises viewers in its February 15 press release that Huguelet and his team will “pinpoint historical locations such as Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields,” then “convince reluctant homeowners to let his team dig up their property.” Perhaps from the same undisclosed location or near the spot where Mr. Huguelet made his “first major find”?
During our conversation with David Schwarz, SAFE pointed out that televising the digging of private land in search of relics will likely encourage viewers (whose backyard contains no buried treasure) to dig in other locations where relic hunting violates state and federal law. SAFE suggested that a warning and disclaimer be included at the beginning and end of every episode of American Digger, pointing out the many laws that protect federal lands, state lands, tribal lands and onshore and off-shore waters from treasure hunting. Schwarz’s response: “I will definitely pass along that suggestion.”
Mr. Schwarz did not sound surprised by SAFE’s suggestion. After all, his desk in New York is located in the same Viacom office tower as Spike’s sister network MTV, which famously aired the series called Jackass for two tumultuous years (2000-2002). Beginning with the first episode, Jackass included frequent warnings and disclaimers noting that the stunts performed on the program were dangerous and should not be imitated. The warnings not only appeared at the beginning and end of each program and after each commercial break, the warning also appeared occasionally in a “crawl” that ran along the bottom of the screen during some especially risky scenes. Even with these warnings and disclaimers, Jackass was blamed for a number of deaths and injuries involving children and young adults who tried to recreate stunts that appeared on the show (see details at Wikipedia). Ten years after the disappearance of Jackass from MTV, American Digger will likely have similar influence on its viewers, encouraging would-be treasurer hunters to dig, with potential devastating results … unless a warning and disclaimer appears at the beginning and end of every episode.
Let’s hope Spike will insist that Gurney Productions insert warning and disclaimer. If not, the tens of thousands of signatures at the Change.org petition and a barrage of Twitter messages directed at advertisers who promote their products on American Digger (like the Twitter campaign directed against Rush Limbaugh advertisers last weekend) may cause Spike and Gurney to reconsider.
One final suggestion: take a moment and review the ratings history of the last relic hunting series that appeared on cable TV, Treasure Quest, by JWM Productions. Launched with great fanfare on the Discovery channel January 15, 2009, the series stayed afloat for eleven episodes and was cancelled.
Photo: Spike TV