The cioppino sits, red and inert, in its pot. The teetering "seared ahi tuna neapolitan"--which is actually a napoleon, if you want to get technical about it (I do)--has been splashed with brown squiggles of soy sauce. The lamb loin is seared. There is nothing left to do but eat, which is what Culinary Specialist First Class Tom McNulty prepares to do. He calls his assistants--a pair of women in military kitchen garb--before the cameras, presenting them each with plastic forks. As the ladies dig in, the show's in-house, in-uniform band The Taste Buds amble through a jazzy rendition of "America the Beautiful," and the credits roll.
So ends another episode of "The Grill Sergeants," a cooking show filmed in the commissary at Naval Base San Diego and broadcast on the government sponsored Pentagon Channel. The program is pitched squarely at a military audience: McNulty spends much of the show singing the praises of the commissary and is probably the only TV chef ever to introduce a dish by saying, "This is something I cook for my admiral at home." And yet, the Pentagon Channel is right there on civilian cable, reaching more than 16 million domestic households.
The network continues to grow, too--rapidly and in several directions at once. Five million podcasts were downloaded from its website last year. It has both a MySpace profile and a presence on Twitter, for the love of Dwight D. Eisenhower. All told, the network has come a long way from the days when it was just a humble government-funded cable channel with a rounding-error budget, uniformed news anchors, and high, arguably propagandistic hopes.
The Pentagon Channel was launched, with a budget of $6 million, in May 2004 as the tenth television channel in the American Forces Network. The other nine are available only to military personnel with special converter boxes, and they air familiar U.S. programming: "Wheel of Fortune," "Spongebob Squarepants," comedies, dramas, and the baffling combination of the two that is "CSI: Miami." The Pentagon Channel, on the other hand, airs original programming and is there for any civilian--a freelance writer, let's say--to stumble upon while wandering the cold chaos of outer-cable.
The Pentagon Channel's initial appearance on satellite television and basic cable packages earned it a level of scorn that has eluded government-run channels such as NASA TV.* "Fire up those TiVos, disinformation fans," a pre-mogulhood Arianna Huffington huffed in Salon back in 2005. "Rummy TV is coming soon to a flat screen near you. 'If you hate the truth, you'll love DoD TV!'"
Several years of resounding anonymity ensued--but, whenever the Pentagon Channel did garner attention, it was in the context of how the United States was assuming the characteristics of a nightmare Orwellian state. In April 2008, in the wake of The New York Times' revelation that the administration was scripting talking points for ostensibly objective military analysts on cable television, Jonathan Karl of ABC News reported that, "increasingly, the Pentagon is using [the Pentagon Channel] the way other governments--say, North Korea's or Russia's or Cuba's--use state-controlled television: as a tool to disseminate official information without any interference from a free press." Karl based this on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's preference for Pentagon Channel interviewers over those of the non-uniformed press and warned that "this is actually happening more now [under Gates] than it did under Rumsfeld."
It all sounds awfully sinister, until you actually sit down to watch the thing--which I did, for eight straight hours, because my editor is a sadist. The exercise, crushing as it was, allowed me a perspective on the Pentagon Channel that I didn't have during my previous flip-by viewings. And so, to those worried about Gates's attempt to brainwash the basic-cabled masses, I can now say this: The channel is more goofy uncle than Big Brother. In fact, the Pentagon Channel is most notable as an example of the oxymoron that is state-sponsored entertainment.
This can be said of regular cable, too, but with the Pentagon Channel, I find it hard to shake the sense that the network's essential purpose lies less in the programming than in the commercial breaks. Or non-commercial breaks, in this case--there is no paid advertising on the Pentagon Channel.
Instead, these interruptions serve both to preserve the rhythm of civilian television and to give the Pentagon Channel an opportunity to promote itself. (One Pentagon Channel promo promises that the channel is "Not just news and briefings. ... It's fun!") Most of the Pentagon Channel's non-programming programming, though, is given over to "command information" spots, or CIs, which civilians know as public-service announcements. Among these are a motorcycle-safety spot featuring the stars of "American Chopper" and another featuring "Major Savings," the animated mascot of a Defense Department program that provides, among other things, "a list of the financial advisors who have been banned from your base."
The most striking and frequently aired CIs--which run about twice an hour--are a series of stark suicide-prevention spots. "Don't isolate from your spouse after deployment," another CI urges, before pointing viewers to the website afterdeployment.org, which describes itself as "a mental wellness resource for Service Members, Veterans, and Military Families."
The heaviness of these CIs stand in stark contrast to the news shows that make up the majority of the Pentagon Channel's 24-hour schedule. With some notable exceptions, this programming has the professional-but-slight feel of a local newscast, with anchors ranging in bearing from ultra-polished to just-woke-up. If seeing the CIs feels a bit like skimming some particularly rough pages in the military's personal diary, watching the news program "Around the Services" seems more like reading the dorky e-mails about teamwork, uplift, and quirkery that had been forwarded by its mom.
And then rereading them. A three-minute profile of Army Major Melissa "Gun'Her Down" Mitravich--who oversees mobilizations between roller-derby matches--aired three times between noon and 2 p.m. on the day of my experiment. Another piece, about a lieutenant general visiting an Air Force base in Kyrgyzstan, was beginning its fourth post-noon deployment around 2:15 when it was preempted by a speech from President Obama.
But enough with the news and briefings--where is the "fun" I had been promised? The answer lies in the hour-long programming block featuring "The Grill Sergeants" and the exercise show "Fit for Duty." To call these the most civilian-friendly shows on the network is, of course, relative--several minutes of "The Grill Sergeants" episode on my eight-hour day were given over to watching a uniformed dietician teach Air Force Master Sergeant Rusty Barfield, the "Commissary Commando," about the importance of a balanced diet. Little cooking was done on-screen, and, while the recipes are available online, each dish was assembled in just a few minutes of screen time.
Which was fine by me, because I didn't have the necessary wonton wrappers, tuna, or cabbage on hand to construct McNulty's Neapolitan. However, I had planned on attempting the on-screen workout on "Fit For Duty" in my living room. Instead, I found Air Force Master Sergeant Mike Skaggs leading a workout featuring a complicated-looking military-issue "suspension trainer" called TRX. This bungee-enhanced strap/brace/harness contraption exists at the strange nexus of S&M and fitness equipment. "I know all of you warriors have them," Skaggs exhorted.
This warrior doesn't, naturally, which left me on the couch, watching Skaggs lead two assistants, their TRX braces fastened to a truck, through a workout on a beach at Naval Air Station Coronado. The Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" thumped dimly in the background. Informational tidbits--"The TRX was designed for soldiers in mobile environments"--periodically appeared on-screen. Skaggs pointed a stern finger into the camera and barked, "Don't you quit!"
But by the second go-round of "Fit For Duty," I quit. I had to. For the sake of my sanity. Yet I stepped away from the couch heartened. Because, although the channel's very existence recalls an era, not so long past, when the idea of a state-sponsored propaganda network seemed queasily plausible, the Pentagon Channel is, first and foremost, a vivid demonstration of why no pundit will ever propose nationalizing NBC.
David Roth is a writer living in New York.
*CORRECTION: The article originally stated that C-SPAN was government-run. We apologize for the error.
By David Roth