Six Degrees with Mike Rowe premiered earlier this year on Discovery+, and is now airing Sundays on the Discovery Channel. It’s still a show that was funded by the oil industry, despite Discovery’s insistence that it “is committed to curbing our own impact on the environment.”
Mike Rowe’s 2005 to 2012 reality show Dirty Jobs was terrific, both entertaining and informative, educational without being annoying. On that and the CNN show that followed, Somebody’s Gotta Do It, Mike was an affable host who put the spotlight on the people he was profiling (rather than making it all about himself).
I especially appreciated his mission of highlighting the people who do “the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us,” as he said during Dirty Jobs’ intro.
So in December, when I received screeners for his new Discovery+ show Six Degrees with Mike Rowe, I was hopeful it’d be similar. On the show, which premiered today on the new subscription streaming service, Mike “poses questions that no one has ever asked, and then, (with a little help from his old buddy Chuck), provides unforgettable answers that prove every single thing is connected,” according to Discovery’s description. For example, one episode ends with him saying, “That is how a horseshoe can find your soulmate,” connecting horseshoes to wifi.
While the anecdotes were interesting, I didn’t find the show compelling enough to keep watching. But then, at the end of episode 101, “How can a horseshoe help you find the perfect soulmate?”, Mike said this:
“Six Degrees is sponsored by the oil and natural gas industry. Why? Because oil and natural gas connects everything. Remember Howard Hughes from just a few scenes ago? Well, before Howard made a fortune in aerospace, he made a fortune in the oil fields. The money that he gave to Hedy Lamarr that she used to help create wifi, that came from oil.”
Ever since Jeff Probst dropped a Target-branded crate on Survivor contestants 20 years ago, I’ve been very used to product integration on reality TV shows. Target, Budweiser, and other company’s sponsorship literally made Survivor possible.
And since then, producers and networks have used product integration of varying kinds—sometimes to make money, but often to just cover the costs of production. So I understand the very real need to get sponsorship.
Yet I also could not recall a host making as explicit a sponsorship statement as Mike Rowe did there, and also was shocked by the actual advertiser: the oil industry?!
On the one hand, it’s nice transparency: Here’s who paid for this. On the other hand, it’s the oil industry.
In another episode, “How Civil War Soldiers Produced This Show,” Mike concluded with this:
“Why is Six Degrees sponsored by the energy industry? Well, that’s a bit like asking why Chuck drinks coffee all day long. When you play a dozen different characters in the course of a single show, you need all the energy you can get. Likewise, when you go to your favorite search engine to find whatever it is you’re looking for, that takes energy, too.
Specifically, it takes electricity—electricity made possible by spinning turbines. Turbines powered by wind and solar, but mostly by oil and natural gas. So, go pour yourself another cup of joe, and raise your glass to the men and women who provide the energy that keeps the servers humming 24/7.”
This is undeniably factual. And of course, this website runs on such a server, and I have a hybrid car that still uses gasoline, and I use plastic products, which I try to recycle.
The other episode I had access to, “How A Mousetrap Can Cure Your Hangover,” does not have that explicit a message at its conclusion. (It ends with an outtake of Mike laughing.) But its credits—like the other episodes—include this:
Thanks to Our Sponsors
American Petroleum Institute
Distribution Contractors Association
The Distribution Contractors Association’s mission statement says “working together to deliver superior value to the natural gas and the underground utility industry.”
Energy Citizens, which is fighting for oil pipelines and against efforts to end our dependence on gasoline, says it is “paid for by the American Petroleum Institute,” and the API says it “represents all segments of America’s oil and natural gas industry.”
The American Petroleum Industry is currently being sued by the state of Minnesota, which says API is among the “parties who have profited from avoiding the consequences and costs of dealing with global warming and its physical, environmental, social, and economic consequences,” and wants it to pay for “those impacts, rather than Minnesota taxpayers, residents, or broader segments of the public.” API is also being sued by Hoboken, New Jersey, which said Big Oil has been “actively lying about the detrimental effects of their products when in fact their own research indicated otherwise, all in order to generate multibillion dollar profits by producing, marketing, and selling vast quantities of fossil fuels.”
The Climate Investigations Center reported that “API was one of the first trade associations to orchestrate behind-the-scenes climate change denial campaigns. As early as the 1950’s and 1960’s, API worked to downplay the threat of smog to human health in Los Angeles by hiring their own scientists that would disparage leading smog control scientists, while promoting the idea that pollution controls would be too costly.”
Now, they’re sponsoring a Discovery+ reality show—a show you have to pay Discovery to watch. And even if you pay $7/month to remove ads, the oil industry’s message is part of some of the actual episodes.
Why does this matter?
Earlier last year, Mike Rowe was one of the speakers at an API event, where he and others “discussed the state of the energy workforce and the need for sensible policymaking on trade and infrastructure.” API’s press release quotes him: “Energy is always in the room…Every single American is relying on it.”
But every single American is also being affected by a “coordinated cover-up of climate risks [that] stretches back decades and rivals that of big tobacco companies.”
And we’re being affected by climate change right now. NASA’s “The Effects of Climate Change” outlines “impacts that are currently visible throughout the U.S. and will continue to affect these regions,” including “decreased water availability,” “risks to infrastructure,” “increasing wildfire, insect outbreaks and tree diseases [that] are causing widespread die-off,” “reduced agricultural yields” and “health impacts in cities due to heat.”
Every year, the oil and gas industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising to convince the public they’re good faith partners in the fight against climate change.
… Oil companies and trade groups run such ads claiming they’re “part of the solution” while investing trillions of dollars into extracting more fossil fuels that, if burned, will undoubtedly send the livable world into chaos. They run ads claiming they’re “on it” while spending millions funding the spread of climate denial and disinformation.
I have not watched all episodes—three were provided to critics—but I have not seen evidence that Six Degrees with Mike Rowe is directly denying climate change or spreading overt disinformation.
But it certainly is taking the oil industry’s money—and delivering a pro-oil message that focuses on “the men and women who provide the energy that keeps the servers humming 24/7.”
That sounds reasonable until I imagine Mister Rogers saying Mister Rogers Neighborhood was sponsored by the tobacco industry, and the hard-working men and women who produce the nation’s cigarettes.
Mike Rowe’s response
On its web site, Discovery—now a massive, worldwide company, not just a single cable network—outlines its commitments to “being purposeful and doing the right thing.” That includes its commitments to the planet: “we seek to protect the planet and ensure there will always be stories to tell. We acknowledge that climate change is a real threat to our world and business and Discovery is committed to curbing our own impact on the environment.”
I asked Discovery how accepting money from an industry responsible for climate change and for lying about it fit with Discovery’s corporate mission and stated goals, and if Discovery be “committed to curbing our own impact” while allowing the oil industry to buy time inside one of its high-profile new shows.
Discovery did not respond to those questions.
I also asked where the sponsorship came from, how much they’re paying, who’s receiving that funding, and if the oil industry had any editorial control.
I received a statement attributed to Mike Rowe, which said this:
“Six Degrees is a show about the surprising ways people and events are connected through history. DCA and API were both interested in the concept and offered to sponsor the program before it was even shopped. They had no creative input, and no editorial oversight. But their enthusiasm for the project allowed us to start production long before the program had a home. It wouldn’t have happened without them, and I’m grateful for their support.”
Mike’s appreciation for their support for funding his show is understandable, but it’s regrettable that he’s appreciating and promoting an industry and organizations that are causing so much damage to every one of us.