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Discovery Channel jumps the shark

by Donald Prothero, Aug 07 2013

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 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.

An entirely fictional scene: the fish-reptiles known as ichthyosaurs were extinct 80 m.y. before any large great white sharks evolved.

An entirely fictional scene: the fish-reptiles known as ichthyosaurs were extinct 80 m.y. before any large great white sharks evolved.

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.

Numerous other bloggers attacked Discovery Channel along the same vein. Actor and blogger Wil Wheaton wrote a passionate post, as did Brian Switek. But again, Wilcox said it best:

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.

34 Responses to “Discovery Channel jumps the shark”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    “Huge numbers of people” believe mermaids are real because of a faux documentary? Are we talking about “people” over the age of six? Really? Any data to back that up?

    That being said, I do think that:

    1) Yes, the shark week thing is egregious, and
    2) It won’t have any effect.

    Consider: one can divide the world into People Who Care About Sharks and People Who Don’t. Members of the former group who watch this bogus documentary will know it’s bogus. Members of the latter group won’t know it’s bogus — but since they don’t care about sharks anyway, they probably already think Great Whites are either mythical beasts or they believe Great Whites can leap into the stratosphere and bite a 747 in half. The total ignorance about sharks will not change.

    Now, it’s disgraceful for the “Discovery” channel to run shows which merely confirm people’s ignorance, but I don’t think this is a crisis.

    • Matt van Rooijen says:

      In your scenario this documentary should have been for the people in group two, who ‘don’t care’ about sharks but are for some reason watching anyway.

      They are the people who have the most to gain because it’s an opportunity to learn.
      Making a documentary that lies does have an effect, people remain in ignorance of the world around them.

      Actually it’s worse, they understand it less!

  2. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. says:

    If you go to Discovery’s Facebook page or their Twitter feed (or look under #megalodon, #mermaids, #sharkweek) you will find a large number of people actually stating they believe these, and if their pictures aren’t ALL lies, they are older than six.

    There are people out there who–for good or for ill–trust their documentary channels to tell them facts. Crazy, I know.

    One clarification about the Megalodon show, though: there was a real scientist in it. There was one ~4 minute segment featuring Stephen Godfrey of the Calvert Marine Museum. Not surprisingly, that one segment contained almost all the actual facts in the whole show.

    • Janna Finch says:

      I did a few searches on the “Mermaids” and am dumbfounded right now. I thought the comments in this article were a joke, but the more I read, I realized these people actually believe mermaids exist.

      A gem: “Years ago in the late 1930’s my grandfather said there was a mermaid caught by fishermen in the waters of the northern coast of California around the Crescent City area, he said it cried for days and the fishermen released it back into the water. He was a very honest man, and a preacher, I believe he wouldn’t lie about that. I have always believed that story my whole life.”

      I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I’ll just stare at the screen for a few minutes with my jaw on the floor.

  3. Aaron Woodruff says:

    Honestly the hurt that I feel is the same as when one discovers his childhood hero is, in reality, a monster of a human being.

    Growing up, Shark Week was the highlight of my summer and the last thing to look forward to before going back to school. In those days it was always highly informative, stuck to the facts, and had a real conservation message, all while maintaining an entertainment factor (let’s be honest, sharks are interesting enough on their own, there’s no need to sensationalize them). Later I came to view Shark Week, along with the occasional nature or prehistory documentary, as sort of an oasis in a desert of useless information.

    Over the past few years though I have been noticing even that was getting a bit sketchy. Finally, when Shark Week started this year I literally found it painful to watch! My sole consolation, the older Shark Week broadcasts we know and love now air during the daytime, and Shark Fest which currently airs nights on the NatGeo Wild channel makes up for Discovery’s growing lack of integrity.

    The whole Mermaids thing was bad enough, but Shark Week’s latest Megalodon “documentary” was the last straw. As someone who blogs about prehistoric life myself, I believe I am duty-bound to present my viewers with accurate, up-to-date information based on facts, filling in the blanks with modern animal behaviors as needed. Anything less would insult the reader’s intelligence and dishonor myself. Does Discovery (or similar networks)not hold itself to the same standards?

    Who runs these channels? All my life I was under the impression that there were trained scientists behind them pulling the strings and distributing trustworthy broadcasts, but I doubt that now.

  4. Bill Kossmann says:

    This fall from Grace of the Discovery Channel reflects the general dumbing-down of television in general.

    A number of their programs used to be interesting documentaries, but now they’re filled with contrived drama worthy of a daytime soap opera (a “shocking” statement, followed quickly by the beat of timpani, a quick zoom into a character’s face, and then fading to commercial).

    This is not the type of programming that I expect from Discovery, TLC, or History. It’s exactly what I’d expect from Fox or CNN.

    No wonder people are beginning to abandon cable TV in favour of over-the-air programming and the Internet.

  5. Max says:

    The UFO shows may present encounters and hoaxes credulously, but at least they don’t create fake UFO footage and fake encounters, do they?

    • Are you kidding? Those UFO shows have LOTS of dramatizations and simulations and CG footage that is NOT identified as such.

      • Max says:

        Like what, CG simulations of what an actual witness says he saw, or fake encounters and evidence made up for the show and reported nowhere else?

  6. Toby says:

    I think a bit of it is simply milking footage they have already paid for in as many ways as possible. I have recently caught a series on VLCTY called Prehistoric (city name) that. Spoke fairly reasonable about the archaeological record for several city’s, DC, NYC, LA, Dallas, Denver, and such. The footage you describe of C. Megalodon sound a lot like footage used in almost every one of those episodes, and it seems like that info was accurate. It sounds like the Discovery show simply used some of that CGI but just didn’t use it quite as accurately. There is still good science on Cable, but you have to hunt for. It, or stumble on it in odd places. I mean why VLCTY?

  7. Brian Dunning says:

    A favorite stat of mine, which I calculated for one of my #DailySkeptoid tweets, is that a normal weight for an adult C. megalodon was equal to five times the weight of the largest elephant on record. What I didn’t have space to squeeze into the tweet was that that particular elephant was almost twice the weight of your typical elephant. That’s a crazy big fish.

  8. Stephen H says:

    Unfortunately, the profit motive can corrupt anything it touches. We see it in clinical trials, we see it in churnalism, and now the Discovery Channel has climbed on board. Because people love hearing about scary monsters, and ghosts, and the latest miracle cure.

    It would be nice to say “The line must be drawn here! This far, no further”. But it’s too late. Michael Sandel wrote an interesting book about “What money can’t buy” – unfortunately, he’s too late. We have been trained to expect the profit motive to pervade everything – including how we view reality.

    • Daniel says:

      Bread and circuses go back to ancient Rome. Only then it was the emperor trying to placate the masses to keep his own head. Now it’s private investors that want to make a buck.

      In any event, it wasn’t like there was this golden age of science television programming. Yeah, the History Channel now has Ancient Aliens, but back in the good old days, it was the “Hitler” channel with a good dose of JFK assassination conspiracy theories. (Back in the late 90s I recall, the History Channel had to apologize for running a program that put LBJ at the center of the conspiracy). I remember TLC or maybe Discovery running plenty of UFO related programming back around that time as well.

      If anything, despite the anecdotal evidence of the decline of science programming you hear, actual science programming is probably more available than ever, albeit it progresses in a two-steps forward, one-step back kind of way. If you have any kind of broadband internet access, you can watch almost every episode of Nova, Nature, and anything on the Science Channel, which on the whole, is still pretty good.

      In the end, the people who are inclined to believe that mermaids are actually real probably do not need the Discovery Channel. And so long as those people don’t become marine biologists, who really cares.

      Also, I imagine a lot of people, perhaps more than not, that watch those shows know they’re garbage, and do so purely for entertainment value. I love Ancient Aliens. The cryptozoologist shows kind of bore me though.

      • tmac57 says:

        Daniel- You are what is known in the skeptical world as a ‘shruggie’,A term that was coined for doctors who couldn’t be bothered, or deign to care about the rising tide of ‘alternative medicine’ nonsense that has infiltrated modern medical practice.
        Because of that ‘who cares’ attitude,it appears that rampant bullshit that used to be marginal in the general populace,has how come to be seen as a viable form of medical practice(s).
        Soon we will have ‘alternative’ biology,paleontology,astronomy,engineering,physics…etc etc. Oh wait!

      • Daniel says:

        Perhaps I’m a shruggie when it comes to certain things, that I believe really are harmless. Alternative medicine does not fall into this category because it actually results in people dying prematurely and threatening the rest of us with anti-vaccine nonsense. Psychics of the Sylvia Browne ilk that are downright fraudsters (a cut above the novelty Tarot card readers you see on the sidewalk) are also the types of people that should be targeted relentlessly.

        However, cryptozoology is almost entirely for entertainment value. Creationism, so long as it is kept out of science curriculum, is just a whacky, largely harmless belief that some people, perhaps a lot people, feel the need to have.

        It all really comes back to me trying to add a little bit of perspective. Obviously, in a blog devoted to skepticism and “debunking”, things like creationism and cryptozoology are going to be addressed. However, sometimes I just feel that some people go way over the top when saying how harmful some beliefs really are.

      • kraut says:

        “Creationism, so long as it is kept out of science curriculum, is just a whacky, largely harmless belief that some people, perhaps a lot people, feel the need to have.”

        Unfortunately a sizable portion of the US population does want to have this nonsense included in the school curriculum – and not in the “I believe in nonsense” section, but in the science part of it.
        So contrary to your statement – it is having an influence on the quality of education.

      • Daniel says:

        Kraut, as I’ve said before, and as no one really refutes, the inroads that creationism has made into public school science curriculum is grossly overstated.

      • oldebabe says:

        FWIW, I feel exactly the same way.

      • Max says:

        I agree that cryptozoology is relatively harmless, because there are species that haven’t been discovered yet, so what’s the big deal if people think Bigfoot is one of them. I don’t think it’ll make them reject biology.
        But Young Earth Creationists reject not only biology, but also geology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and more. And some of them blame Darwinism for the Holocaust.

      • Daniel says:


        As long as those young earth creationists aren’t palentologists, geologists, or involved in any other study that involves needing an understanding of evolution, who really cares. There are many other endeavors that these people can pursue quite competently and still believe the earth is 6000 years old. In fact, some of them could probably be pretty good physicists, engineers, or doctors.

      • tmac57 says:

        @ Daniel- You left out ‘elected representatives’ from your list…you’re welcome.

      • Max says:

        Creationist Don McLeroy, the former chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, is a dentist with a BS in EE. I wonder if he thinks wisdom teeth are an intelligent design.

      • Daniel says:

        “I wonder if he thinks wisdom teeth are an intelligent design.”

        Even if he does, I would guess that he’s just as good at deciding when they need to be pulled as any other dentist that has read Richard Dawkins’ entire catalog.

  9. You wouldn’t say that if you taught high school biology in this country, especially in the red states. And as I’ve shown in many posts before, US science literacy is abysmally bad for the amount of GNP we have, or the amount we spend per student–at the bottom of nearly all the developed countries in the world. The major difference? We’re the only country with creationist interference in the schools. Not a problem in Europe or in Asia. If you look closely at the questions we fail at, they all have to do with evolution, cosmology, anthropology, or any other subject with contradicts biblical literalism…

    • Max says:

      Good point about specific questions.
      The U.S. did relatively ok on most questions, except the ones on the Big Bang and evolution.

      Compared to other countries up to 2004.

      Just the U.S. up to 2010.

    • Daniel says:

      The lack of science literacy has nothing to do with people’s belief in creationism, or the attempts of some to put creationism or intelligent design in the classroom.

      In my home and thoroughly blue state, the worst performing school districts do not teach that stuff, and there isn’t even any thought of it. The problem is, is that the students in those school districts can hardly read or perform basic math. You could have Ricard Dawkins teaching those students biology, it wouldn’t change the situation. I suspect this is the case nationwide, and accounts for the alarming statistics about the state of education, generally, in the United States. (BTW, it’s not a liberal/conservative/teacher’s union, public school/charter school issue, or it has very little to do with the problem, but that’s a story for another day).

      The bottom line is that even most Creationists, again I suspect, don’t reject 99 percent of established science or mathematics. 99 percent of even young earth creationists understand that the earth revolves around the sun, there are things called atoms, that science, rather than Leviticus, is how you should go about performing medicine, that physics and chemistry explain how an air conditioner works, etc.

      And maybe you can provide me with some evidence to the contrary, but I would imagine that even those few school districts that do teach creationism, or are attempting to, still teach physics or chemistry in a way that is basically the same as everywhere else in the country. In fact, if you took out the parts about evolution, their biology curriculum would not be all that different either.

      It’s disconcerting for sure that creationism has made the inroads into public school education, however overstated the phenenom might be. It’s just not the crisis that some are making it out to be.

      • tmac57 says:

        99 percent of even young earth creationists understand that the earth revolves around the sun

        Hmmm…so you must believe that most creationists are more aware of that fact than the general populace,which from various polls (Gallup for example) show that 18 to 20% of the U.S. answer that question wrong?

      • Daniel says:

        Well roughly that amount come from areas of the country where the issue in the school system is not whether they’re teaching creationism, but whether the students can read at a basic level.

        In the Detroit and Newark public school systems they are not teaching creationism. I would hypothesize anyway that students in those school systems, along with the people that raised them, are the ones that don’t know the basic science you’re referring to. Or, I would also bet that a greater percentage of students in the Dover public school system, where there was enough support to almost get intelligent design into the public schools but for a judge’s order, know the information you’re talking about.

        One thing I would be interested in, but I can’t find any good data for the amount of time I want to put into this, would be to look at how well students in Utah do in science education. It’s home to a lot of people whose religion teaches, shall we say some really, really strange ideas about the origins of man, and where there was an active, yet, to date, unsuccessful movement to put creationism into the public school curriculum. The standardized test scores that I’ve seen in science proficiency — they still do ok — aren’t the best thing to look at because they only take into account the students that graduate, or don’t account for high school dropouts.

      • tmac57 says:

        Are you willing to bet that creationist students have as good an understanding and acceptance of science that directly contradicts their biblical teachings than non-creationist students?
        I would not take that bet. But that seems to be what you are reaching at as far as I can tell.

      • Daniel says:

        “Are you willing to bet that creationist students have as good an understanding and acceptance of science that directly contradicts their biblical teachings than non-creationist students?”

        Of course not. But, most of what’s taught in science classes does not directly contradict biblical teaching, or, if it does, it contradicts biblical teachings that even the most devout will conveniently overlook. For example, the Bible (Leviticus if I recall) teaches some strange things when it comes to curing disease. Yet somehow, Tim Tebow will go to a real doctor to get treatment if he tears his ACL, although he might pray to Jesus for a speedy recovery. (Note, I don’t have the inclination to find statistics that show the degree to which devoutly religious people will attempt to cure disease based solely on what’s in scripture, but my guess is that it’s very small to the point of being a fringe curiosity).

        I also find it hard to believe that a religious person will outright reject the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, all other things being equal. While I had a little egg on my face when I threw out the 99 percent figure, I would guess that most of the people that believe something to the contrary, or are just plain ignorant, are not that way because their parents and community told them that belief in evolution is the work of the devil.

        Things like evolution though, i.e. where we come from, get to the heart of every religious belief of which I am aware. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that devoutly religious people will avoid learning about it themselves or having it taught to their children or in their communities.

        It’s not the end of the world though. As I said, rejecting evolution does not prevent one from being a competent lawyer, banker, economist, plumber, mechanic, or even most branches of medicine.

      • tmac57 says:

        Or maybe Daniel,you just pulled that statistic out of your nether regions?

      • Max says:

        Like 99% of statistics

      • Daniel says:

        Not quite there, but more or less it seems.

        In any event, and again it’s my surmise, the appalling statistics are not coming from predominantly from creationists. I bet it’s coming largely from other places, largely in the areas of the school districts I’m talking about.

        Just a guess though.

      • Max says:

        The NSF link I posted above says 73% of Americans correctly answered that the Earth goes around the Sun (Question 3a).
        Of those who answered it correctly, 52% knew how long it takes for the Earth to go around the Sun.