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“Shark week” goes belly up

by Donald Prothero, Aug 20 2014

A year ago, I blogged about the decline of “Shark Week” on Discovery Channel. At that time, the normally documentary-filled week that was the channel’s biggest draw all year was beginning to show signs of “jumping the shark.” As I pointed out in previous posts, the deregulation of the airwaves in the late 1980s has led to a steady “network decay” of once reputable TV channels. When cable TV first expanded into hundreds of speciality channels, they were all dedicated to a core mission, whether it be golf or history or science. As explains it, all of these deregulated cable networks had to please advertisers, and soon moved into reality shows and sensationalism to attract the core audience of 18-31 year old males that advertisers covet. Discovery Channel used to run almost non-stop documentary footage, and did fine like that for over a decade. As puts it:

The Discovery Channel still shows plenty of actual documentary material, despite having been decaying for almost as long as MTV has. In the late 80s the lineup was mostly serious documentaries, the most famous of which was Wings (no relation to the sitcom except for a focus on aircraft) but which also included classy repackaged BBC imports like Making of a Continent — and once a year there was Shark Week, which was just what you’d expect. By the mid-1990s, they showed an obscene amount of home improvement shows and cooking shows aimed at stay-at-home moms (enough to spawn the spin-off Discovery Home & Leisure Channel, now Planet Green) and Wings had proven so popular it had been farmed out to its own spin-off, Discovery Wings Channel (now Military Channel). Now, they’re being swamped with “guys building and/or blowing things up” shows in the vein of MythBusters and Monster Garage. And about four different shows about ghost hunters. In 2005, Discovery debuted Cash Cab, a game show that takes place in the back of a cab, leaving one unsure whether it even has a theme beyond “non-fiction”. It gets weird when you realize that they’re knocking some of their own shows off, especially Mythbusters into Smash Lab (with a focus on safety measures) and How It’s Made into Some Assembly Required. The latter has almost only done products featured in the former (though How It’s Made has been on for just about ten years, so it’s hard to find something they haven’t done). The Discovery Channel also used to contain a lot of nature, which is where the now-classic Shark Week (which they still air regularly) originated from. But it seems that explosions have taken the place of tigers ripping stuff to pieces. Most of the nature shows have since been relegated to Animal Planet. Amusingly enough, despite the slippage over the years it remains the sole survivor of the educational channels on American cable television.

A year ago, my main complaint about “Shark Week” on Discovery Channel was the outrageously bad show claiming that the gigantic 50-foot-long extinct great white shark, Carcharocles megalodon, is still alive and swimming out there and has even attacked humans. The entire show was faked from one end to another, with faked footage of shark attacks, actors portrayed as real scientists, and lots of CG scare shots, dark shots and spooky footage to set the mood. Although the Discovery website admitted it was fiction, and there was a tiny disclaimer in the end-credits that no one would have noticed, most people came away with the false notion that C. megalodon is still alive and terrorizing the oceans. The scientific community howled in disbelief and anger at this betrayal of their original scientific mission, all in the name of ratings. But those ratings spoke much louder than any scientists, since they got their all-time highest ratings from that show.

Clearly, money talks and scientists and teachers have no influence any more, because this last “Shark Week,” Discovery Channel doubled down on the “fake-umentaries” and “docu-fiction”. First, they released a video hoax onto YouTube supposedly showing a shark in Lake Ontario, all to build publicity for “Shark Week”. Then, as a sequel to the original “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives”, they ran a new show called “Megalodon: The New Evidence”. Nothing in it qualified as “evidence”—it was just additional faked footage and more  faked “eyewitness accounts” performed by actors. Many of my colleagues who actually work on these fossils, and frequently speak to the public say they’re now overwhelmed with questions from everyone, kids to adults, all convinced that the giant shark is still alive. Many not willing to believe a fossil shark expert right in front of them vs. a TV program that was pure fiction. As Brian Switek wrote in his blog about it:

[Bobby] Boessenecker has even harsher words for Discovery. The channel still holds a high reputation for factual programming amongst the public, Boessenecker says, which makes “docufiction” like Mermaids and Megalodon especially loathsome. Says Boessenecker: “I find the willful distortion of science by Discovery in favor of entertainment and ratings reprehensible. Discovery may have a short disclaimer in front of the documentary, but it’s just lip service; they either know full well that they’re being intentionally misleading, or being hopelessly naive in thinking that the public will be able to separate fact from fiction while watching a show advertised as a documentary on a network with a reputation for putting out informative nature documentaries.” For Boessenecker, Discovery’s chicanery cuts even deeper because he grew up watching the channel’s nature programs and was partly inspired to become a scientist because of them. “And now,” Boessenecker says, “that same channel which was so great and educational only two decades ago has dismissed over a century of research in my field with the casual wave of an arm, and for nothing more than ratings.”

But now this fakery has pervaded the entire week of shows, so apparently most of them are either grossly exaggerated or outright fiction. Another new show was “Sharkageddon”, an alarmist piece of garbage that claimed that shark attacks in Hawaii were way up and that the water off Hawaii were no longer safe to swim. The Hawaii Bureau of Tourism should take them to court on this one, since they did the worst possible smear job on a state, all based on completely false or misleading claims. As my colleague Christie Willcox blogged, EVERY claim in the show is false, and often the exact opposite of reality. The show claimed that shark attacks were on the rise, but this is false. It claimed that the protection of green turtle species was drawing sharks in (thus undermining an important environmental success story), with no evidence whatsoever–and faked the “shark attacking green turtle” footage by putting a foam-rubber “green turtle” in the water and attaching chum to its “flipper” to bring sharks. It falsely claimed that attacks on spearfishermen are up, and that sharks are learning from the sounds of spearfishing. And it make a big scare story out of the tiny foot-long “cookie-cutter” sharks, featuring the one person in all of history who has ever been bitten by one. They made ridiculous assertions that Hawaii’s “unique geology” brought sharks closer to shore, and that hydrozoans are jellyfish, that tunicates are hydrozoans (not even in the right phylum!), and other zoological howlers that clearly demonstrated that no competent scientist read the script for this garbage. Indeed, the credentials of the few “experts” shown on camera demonstrate this: not ONE true marine biologist or shark expert, but instead a local spearfisherman, a technician working for a local aquaculture firm, and a model who dresses up as a “pirate” for a local restaurant where she waits tables. As Willcox concludes:

Not only is there no support for the show’s entire premise, each of the hypotheses presented are factually wrong or illogical. Sharkageddon’s pointless pontificating doesn’t leave us any closer to explaining why shark attacks occur—or where, or when. Alexander ends on a conservation message, which Discovery, of course, ensures is brief and buried with credits. But this final thought is what Discovery should have focused on all along. Sharks are vital to Hawaiian ecosystems. We don’t need another “documentary” villifying these ecological and culturally important animals—we need one that explains why they matter, what they do for us, and why we should be fighting to save them.

Clearly, Discovery Channel wants to get even more sensational, so it led off “Shark Week” on August 10 with another new show, “Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine,” which was a hoax from one end to the other. This got all sorts of angry and shocked reactions from people who were just discovering that Discovery channel runs “fake-umentaries.” Then they followed this with another hoax show about a “monster hammerhead,” also completely faked.

The irony in all these scare stories about shark attacks is that they are extremely rare, while humans are hunting sharks to extinction

The irony in all these scare stories about shark attacks is that they are extremely rare, while humans are hunting sharks to extinction

But this goes beyond creating entirely hoaxed shows with faked footage and actors from fictional “institutes” pretending to be real scientists on camera. Even more despicable is their practice of “bait and switch” filming, where they sit down and film a scientist on the pretext of doing a legitimate interview, but then take a tiny clip from hours of footage out of context and make the scientist appear foolish by seemingly saying something that supports their outlandish claims. A number of scientists have now come forward and documented that the interviewers misled them and the viewers by showing them as representing views that are not scientific.

This is comparable to the numerous “stealth creationist” film operations out there, which invite legitimate scientists and scholars to an interview under false pretexts, then film hours of footage with leading questions that might force the scientist to say something that can be edited out of context to sound like a support for creationism. That’s exactly how Ben Stein and his crew lured Michael Shermer, Genie Scott, P.Z. Myers, Will Provine, and even Richard Dawkins to agree to an interview with them—they called the project something else and completely hid their creationist agenda. Then when “Expelled” came out, you could clearly see that the quotes were out of context or that they were not really supporting the claim that Stein would drone into the camera. Now it is to the point that we scientists must be very careful about which documentary filmmakers we agree to work with. Not only are some of them stealth creationists, but even legitimate documentarians are now rewarded by sensationalizing their product and quoting us out of context.
So what does Discovery Channel say in justification of this obvious betrayal of their mission and selling out to junk TV in order to attract more viewers? Last year, they rationalized the “Megalodon” shows by lame excuses like: “Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still a debate about what they may be.” Not only was this entirely false, since there is NO debate among scientists that C. megalodon is extinct and has been for millions of years, but the “legends” are also faked, since there really wasn’t any lore about gigantic sharks until last year when Discovery Channel created it with their hoaxes. This year, Discovery Channel’s VP of Development, Michael Sorensen, was interviewed about this issue. In the interview he admitted up front that after 200 shows, they were running out of ideas. In his words, “We spend so much money on programming featuring conservation, science and technology that I think we wanted to give something to appease a different audience.” Apparently, by “different audience” he means credulous people who are easily duped by hoax programming, or don’t care if it’s all faked. Even more alarming is that they made the decision to run fake-umentaries because people WANTED to be lied to! In his words:

The second thing we did is we went and we did a lot of research. We talked to a few focus groups, we got a lot of feedback from the audience and we realized there are a lot of people who love this kind of story. They want to go on this journey. They’re very curious about whether or not [Megalodon] could be possible. And that’s why we made the decision to continue the story – we heard back, ‘OK, what’s next thing for this story?’ And I think there was this clamoring that people wanted to hear more about it.

Clearly, the ethical or scientifically justifiable issues were never addressed—just “What additional crap can we throw at this audience and see if they’ll eat it up?” Later in the interview, he openly lies and claims that the sequel was NOT based on ratings. And finally, he suggests that Discovery Channel is open to working with scientists more! Get real! Clearly, if they betray our trust, and lie so openly on the air, and edit our footage out of context, what scientist would EVER want to work with them now? The entire network is now tainted with the stink of lies and fakery and hoaxes, and any scientific respectability they may have once had has gone the way of all their other crappy reality programming they run in the weeks between “Shark Week.” So much for their slogan of being the “#1 non-fiction network.”

Meanwhile, “Cosmos” won four Emmys last weekend, proof that you can do a good quality science show, make it appealing to general audiences, and get much higher ratings that these crappy shows on Discovery Channel. If only they devoted their resources to emulating “Cosmos” rather than creating more garbage….

8 Responses to ““Shark week” goes belly up”

  1. Mark Sebert says:

    Excellent expose on something that I have found quite disturbing about how these channels are becoming increasingly bunk and sensational. Even the animal planet is going down hill. Something should definitely be down about this shark week stuff though and hopefully discovery channel can be held accountable.

  2. Walter says:

    And news just broke that this year’s Shark Week broke ratings records for Discovery in key advertising demographics, so don’t expect the channel to change its ways anytime soon.

    As much as I wish Discovery would make the necessary changes on its own, there is no incentive as long as record audiences keep tuning in. Just the opposite, in fact. The only thing we can hope for is the negative publicity eventually starts to take an effect on ratings. Then Discovery may change course.

  3. Mike.E says:

    More than likely within the next few weeks, I’ll be removing Discovery from my channel line-up. because of all of their reality shows, and mockumentaries, I barely watch it any more. I most definitely will be sending them off an email (and one to my cable provider) explaining why I’m removing their channel from my line-up.

    • Mark Scurry says:

      Spot on Mike, the only way to hurt them is via ratings, and ultimately money. I’ll be doing the exact same thing.

  4. Brian Dunning says:

    Are we still playing it safe and saying C. megalodon, or is it now definitely Carcharocles and not Carcharodon?

    • The consensus seems to favor Carcharocles now, although there are still holdouts. I just HATE it when people use “Megalodon” as a stand-alone name, with is ILLEGAL in the ICZN. NO trivial name can be listed without its genus! Hence, I always prefix my own writing with “C. megalodon”, the zoologically proper way to write it.