In previous posts, I’ve written about how basic cable channels like TLC, The History Channel, and the Discovery Channel have undergone “network creep”. As TVtropes.com explains it, when they were initially founded in the late 80s during the deregulation of the airwaves, these channels all had clear programming goals as described in their names. But since they are purely commercial channels that are all trying to appeal to the 18-31 year-old male audience that advertisers craves, they’ve all gravitated to have almost the same kind of programming: junk reality shows about hillbillies and truckers and storage locker vultures, with occasional bright lights like Mythbusters or River Monsters. They run pseudoscience shows almost every night: Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts are their bread and butter. They’ve almost completely given up on any pretense of educational programming, although at one time they at least tried to maintain a facade of science in their documentaries.
One of Discovery Channel’s last bastions of respectability was Shark Week, when they run every program in their vault having anything to do with sharks. Well, that is no more. They opened Shark Week this Sunday with a two-hour “documentary” about the giant extinct great white shark, Carcharocles megalodon, that was entirely phony: fake footage of a monster shark attacking a boat, fake footage of a whale supposed bitten by one, with all the roles played by actors, not real scientists. If this sounds familiar, it is: just a few months ago, Animal Planet ran an entirely fictional “documentary” about mermaids, and huge numbers of people are STILL convinced that mermaids are real! But this Discovery Channel program didn’t even have the decency to claim in their closing credits or their publicity that the program was fictional; their only disclaimer reads:
None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents. Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of “Submarine” continue to this day. Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still a debate about what they may be.
BULLSHIT! There is no evidence that C. megalodon survives today. The fossil record clearly shows they died out millions of years ago, and (despite all the fakery of the “documentary”), no evidence that anything this large still lives in the ocean or hunts whales, and no “legends” or sightings that weren’t made out out of thin air for this show—not even in the credulous cryptozoological literature. Certainly, there are deep-sea creatures that live in submarine canyons (like vampire squid) or the abyssal depths, but great white sharks are not such creatures. Nearly all sharks live in relatively shallow waters where the oxygen content is high enough to support their bodies, and where there is abundant food. This is especially true of great white sharks, and is apparent from the fossil deposits where C. megalodon are found that they lived in shallow, nearshore waters, and would have been spotted long ago if they were still alive. There is absolutely no scientific basis for thinking that such animals are still alive in the world’s oceans. And that quote that 98% of the oceans are still unexplored? BULLSHIT!
What is sad about this “documentary” is that the REAL story of C. megalodon is spectacular enough without having to corrupt it with fakery. As marine biologist Christie Wilcox wrote:
Their hand-sized dental records are some of the only fossilized evidence we have of these gigantic predators, which lived from ~50 million years ago to around 2 million years ago. Based on their size, scientists have estimated these sharks grew to upwards of 60 feet long with a bite force anywhere between 10 and 18 tons, and from scarred fossils we know they likely dined on the giant whales of their time. Here’s what I don’t get, Discovery: Megalodons were real, incredible, fascinating sharks. There’s a ton of actual science about them that is well worth a two hour special. We’vediscovered their nursery grounds off the coast of Panama, for example. Their bite is thought to be the strongest of all time—strong enough to smash an automobile—beating out even the most monstrous dinosaurs. The real science of these animals should have been more than enough to inspire Discovery Channel viewers. But it’s as if you don’t care anymore about presenting the truth or reality. You chose, instead, to mislead your viewers with 120 minutes of bullshit. And the sad part is, you are so well trusted by your audience that you actually convinced them: according to your poll, upwards of 70% of your viewing public fell for the ruse and now believes that Megalodon isn’t extinct. Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives was not just a disservice to your genuinely curious audience. It was a lie. You used your reputation to deceive your viewers, and you didn’t even apologize for it.
The entire “documentary” is filled with errors mixed with fact so that the audience can’t tell which is which. Later in the program, they committed an even worse faux pas, suggesting that C. megalodon could have beaten one of the marine reptiles known as ichthyosaurs. Just one problem: ichthyosaurs were extinct over 100 m.y. ago, at least 80 million years before the giant great white shark evolved. This is as screwy as the “Flintstones model of prehistory” where humans and dinosaurs are shown to co-exist, even though they were separated by 60 million years.
In fact, the sloppy loose way they butcher the facts in the program extends even to the proper name of the fish. Its genus is Carcharocles, is species is C. megalodon. In science, it is FORBIDDEN to use the species (“trivial”) name alone, because it is meaningless unless it is attached to its genus, any more than we speak of “sapiens” when we mean “Homo sapiens“. Yet the show throws the name “Megalodon” around without its genus as a sort of short-hand, not realizing that by doing so, they are talking about something entirely different: an extinct genus of giant clam named Megalodon. And I don’t think they had clams in mind—except for the millions of clams they made throwing this bullshit together for TV.
Part of me is furious with you, Discovery, for doing this. But mostly, I’m just deeply saddened. It’s inexplicably depressing that you’ve gone from “the world’s #1 nonfiction media company” to peddling lies and faking stories for ratings. You’ve compromised your integrity so completely with this special, and that breaks my heart. I loved you, Discovery, ever since I was a child. I grew up watching you. It was partly because of you that I became transfixed by the natural world and pursued a career in science. I once dreamed of having my own Discovery Channel special, following in the footsteps of people like Jeff Corwin. Not anymore. This is inexcusable. You have an obligation to your viewers to hold to your non-fiction claims. You used to expose the beautiful, magical, wonderful sides of the world around us. Now, you just make shit up for profit. It’s depressing. It’s disgusting. It’s wrong.