For nearly 16 years, Brooks Moore has narrated the manufacturing process of everything from apple cider to horse replicas for Discovery Channel’s How It’s Made. As the series enters its 25th season, it’s one of TV’s longest-running, most popular shows, and Moore knows exactly why. “People just have an innate curiosity about how something is made, and how it works,” he tells me. “No matter what’s being made, I’ve talked to people from all walks of life, all facets of income, nationality, background — we as humans are a curious bunch, and people love that satisfaction of seeing something to completion.”
The internet, however, has taken what might have been the most buttoned-up, sanitized genre of documentary on television and mutated it into a viral monster. Oh, you enjoyed watching colored pencils get made? What if we replaced colored pencils with a giant drop hammer slamming onto a molten disc, while workers mosey about and brush under the hammer without any sort of safety standards in sight?
Then you’d get something like this:
What explains the appeal and virality of workplace-disaster videos? Gina Longo, a digital sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, argues much more is happening in these videos than simple shock value and the promise of horrific violence. We may be drawn to the extreme nature of what’s depicted, but such videos also relate to our larger fascination with reality TV. “Viewers get to experience, imagine and marvel at what they, themselves, may never experience: the extreme heat and work conditions that put workers within proximity to real danger,” she explains.
“The fetishization of the ‘other’ has always been a sort of entertainment for people,” she continues. “Social class can be a driver in this regard, whether we’re looking at viral videos from the rich kids of Instagram or the horrible conditions among the workforces across impoverished communities. But this isn’t new. Recall the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs or MTV’s Teen Mom — most focus on the working class and the troubles plaguing those communities.”
Pat Bonham, an OSHA-certified environmental health and safety professional in Chicago, agrees. “These videos are just the result of the economic climate,” he says. “In developing countries, where there’s a lot of manufacturing, employees are forced to take risks we’d never take in the U.S.”
Incidentally, though, that isn’t entirely true about the U.S. “OSHA really doesn’t have much power to do anything about unsafe workplaces, which means our workers take more risks at work than most people would like to believe,” Bonham goes on to explain. “Employers are incentivized to run their business spending as little as possible on OSHA-compliance activities, while employees have a family to feed and will take the risk because they need money.”
Which brings us to videos that actually show terrible accidents, like those in the r/OSHA subreddit. “Most people don’t actively think about their behavior as risky or not, so videos that depict a consequence or conclusion to risky behaviors or conditions will get much more viewership,” Bonham argues. “But when the viewer can immediately identify a setup as unsafe, and then a guy does the dumb thing they predicted, it makes the viewer feel empowered that they wouldn’t do that and can’t believe someone would have.”
The silver lining to these videos going viral is that we’re finally getting a real look into the state of manufacturing, not just a whitewashed, Discovery Channel–approved commercial for America, Inc. For example, consider viral videos depicting the working conditions of a Chinese iPhone factory. “They might lead either to a shared sense of solidarity surrounding a social justice issue or bring awareness to an event that we may not necessarily have found interesting or important to begin with,” Longo says.
Bonham concurs — to a point. “Overall, the sharing of these videos is positive in that people should always learn from mistakes, but it’s also a reminder that there’s a lot of fucked-up people out there,” he says. “It’s just low-brow entertainment, which will always have a huge market unless we, as consumers, take more responsibility for what we consume.”
As for Moore, he doesn’t expect his dulcet tones to go silent any time soon. “How It’s Made just keeps going,” he says. “It’s like a comfort food. There’s something about the simplicity, just the way it’s presented, the narration, the music. People know they can rely on it to be entertaining and educational. So until we run out of things to explain — which will never happen — the show will remain successful long into the future.”