(Shark) Bait and Switch

Hello, friends!  For those in tune with the nerd zeitgeist, we just came off a week where it was hard to get friends to do things other than watch TV.  Take this example: my best friend Michael and I were trying to schedule a Robin Williams retrospective, and we invited our friend Heather.  Heather’s response? “It is shark week if ya’ll think I’m leaving the house then your brains need to be checked”.

Ah, Shark Week.  That lovely week at the end of summer where the Discovery Channel puts aside such high quality programming such as Amish MafiaAuction KingsSons of Guns, and even Bigfoot Hunters to put on a week of high quality, educational programming about sharks, boosting conservation efforts and raising public knowledge of marine biology… except not really.  Just a glance at this year’s Shark Week lineup divulges just how “factual” it really is.  Take, for example, Megalodon: The New Evidence, the sequel to last year’s Shark Week smash hit, Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.  Let’s see how Discovery’s website explains the show:

Collin Drake returns to share new details of his case and present the shocking new evidence of the existence of Megalodon, an enormous prehistoric shark that could still be roaming the oceans.

Megalodon: The New Evidence  show description

This is, of course, an utterly ridiculous claim.  Every serious paleontologist believes that megalodon went extinct 1.5 million years ago.  Not a single specimen has ever washed up on a beach or been caught in a fishing net.  But if you watch Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives (which I, in an act of pure masochism, did), you instead see paleontologists and marine biologists lining up to endorse the notion that megalodon is still out there.  How is this possible?

The answer is the somewhat upsetting fact that the films in the Megalodon franchise are works of fiction.  Despite having all the trappings of a documentary, they have about as much factual basis as Transformers: Age of Extinction.  The “scientists” in the show are bona fide actors playing scientists.  The key footage of megalodon attacking a sperm whale in the Caribbean is CGI.  Everything on screen is fiction.

What troubles me is that the average Shark Week viewer would get no indication of this beyond a 3 second disclaimer card at the beginning of the program stating

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 debate about what they might be.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t read all that in 3 seconds.  It took tracking down a screen grab to be able to reach the weasel-weasel-words-filled goodness.  But that’s all you get.  In all of Discovery’s marketing and scheduling info, they neglect the fact that Megalodon: The New Evidence is a work of fiction.  Discovery argues that because they never bill it as a documentary, they haven’t done anything wrong.  However, when you take a work of fiction that in-world refers to itself as a documentary and surround it with documentaries on a network that bills itself as educational, viewers can hardly be blamed for taking Megalodon at its word.

This is not to say, however, that there isn’t quality programming on Shark Week.  This year, for example, they aired the documentary Spawn of Jaws: The Birth.  Despite the sensationalistic title (really guys, Spawn of Jaws?), it was the true story of real marine biologist Michael Domeier and his real search for the real great white pupping grounds.  It was informative, interesting, and most importantly, true.

In many ways, Shark Week embodies my continuing annoyance with Discovery Communications.  On their 13 channels, including Animal Planet, the Science Channel, and their flagship Discovery Channel, they do produce some very good content.  MythBusters is one of my all-time favorite shows, and I think one of the best sources of critical thinking on TV.  Stormchasers, while a bit sensationalistic, is interesting and does teach you a fair bit about tornadoes.  Sci-Fi Science, with Dr. Michio Kaku, is a really great show about how theoretical physics could revolutionize the world.  Whale Wars fairly accurately portrays the struggle between conservationists and whalers in international waters.  As I said, there is good content in there.  My irritation, however, is that they surround it with shows like Bigfoot HuntersRussian Yeti: The Killer LivesThe Unexplained FilesAlien Encounters, The Haunted, and the notorious Mermaid: The Body Found, a Megalodon-style faux-documentary claiming that mermaids exist.

The situation would be laughable if it weren’t so grim.  The trouble is mixing real informational content with fictional content without any separation or indication of which is which leads to confusion among viewers.  Because shows like MythBusters portray science and truth, they assume that everything around it must also be true.  It’s a logical fallacy on the part of the viewer, but Discovery knowingly baits viewers into and encourages it.

Discovery, you need to reign it in.  Pull shows like Bigfoot Hunters and instead put in some real actual science programming.  I’ll even give you some ideas:

  • Humans: The Deadliest Killer—An hour-long show about how humans are actually the scariest things on the planet.  Episodes could include “The Amazon Atrocity” and “Ocean Commotion”
  • Debunked—A team of actual scientists travels the US meeting with conspiracy theorists, quacks, cranks, and general disseminators of misinformation.  The claims are subjected to thorough skeptical investigation.  It’s sort of like MythBusters, but dealing with more significant claims.
  • Surely You’re Joking!—Based on the hit books Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, this show dramatizes the life of Richard Feynman.
  • Labs—Based on the MTV show CribsLabs goes to scientific research facilities around the world.  The scientists working at the facilities give tours to the television audience, explaining their work and showing off cool lab equipment.

I expect to hear back from Discovery any day now.  Until then, my friends, keep wondering infinitely about the infinite wonder that is life.

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