My love/hate relationship with Shark Week. July 27, 2019 09:16

From Jess: 

I’ve loved sharks since I was a little girl, and one of the things I looked forward to most during the summer was Shark Week, when the Discovery Channel would devote seven days straight to programming about some of the oldest and most successful predators sharing our blue planet.

Even back in 1988, when Shark Week first swam on the scene, some of the shows aired had sensationalistic titles, like “Caged in Fear.” I get it; you want to draw people in, and capitalizing on people’s fear of sharks is a great way to do that. But, at least initially, much of Shark Week’s content was devoted to dispelling myths about sharks as bloodthirsty sea monsters, as popularized in culture by 1975’s “Jaws” (admittedly one of my favorite films, despite the absolutely devastating effects it’s had on the public’s perception of sharks; “Jaws” author Peter Benchley later went on to raise awareness about shark conservation, and even hosted “Shark Week” one year). Shark Week was about having some spine-tingling fun by getting up close and personal with these fascinating fish, but it was also about education, and treated sharks as the amazing creatures they are.

My BFF Kendra and I take a Very Important Photo outside SDCC. She’s the one who insisted we stop, which is just one reason she’s my BFF.
My BFF Kendra and I take a Very Important Photo outside SDCC. (Kendra is the one who insisted we stop, which is just one reason she’s my BFF.) Did you notice the “Jaws” shirt in the background?

These days, I like the idea of Shark Week, and the focus on one of my favorite groups of animals that comes with it... but the Discovery Channel itself is not without its problems.

Shark Week is the longest-running event in cable television, and, as the years have passed, the attitude has shifted from a (generally) educational bent to one of entertainment without consideration for the responsibility the Discovery Channel has in shaping its viewers’ feelings about sharks, or even in representing scientific fact.

The last straw, for me and many others, was 2013’s mockumentary, “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.” This special — the most-watched in Shark Week’s history, at least at that time, with nearly 5 million viewers tuning in — included a disclaimer at the very end noting that it was a work of fiction, but it turned into a “War of the Worlds” situation when people failed to get the memo that this was all in good fun and believed Discovery Channel’s premise that Otodus megalodon, an ancient shark thought to have reached in excess of fifty feet in length, still roams the seas to this day. (In reality, it’s thought that the megalodon went extinct some 3.6 million years ago, even earlier than originally estimated, according to an article published earlier this year in PeerJ.) And why wouldn’t people trust Shark Week? Up until then, it had been a pretty credible event. Unfortunately, there are people even today who believe that the megalodon still exists, thanks to that mockumentary.

Despite the criticism it received, Discovery Channel continued on with its (ahem) “docufiction” the following year: “And a look at [2014]’s lineup shows that Discovery has doubled down on its faux-documentary programming with programs like ‘Lair of the Mega Shark,’ ‘Megalodon: New Evidence,’ ‘Zombie Sharks,’ ‘Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss,’ and ‘Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine,’” observes a great article on the topic in The Week, “The history of Shark Week: How the Discovery Channel both elevated and degraded sharks.” 

When Chris and I wrote “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist” in early 2015, Chris included this bit, from marine bio major (and, unbeknownst to her, shark-tailed mermaid) Kelby’s point of view:

The ocean. She’d never seen it in person. As long as she could remember, Kelby had been obsessed with it. Watched every television show about it she could find. Treasure-hunting documentaries, nature specials, even “Shark Week” despite the fact that it had slowly shifted from informative edutainment to sensationalistic trash.

...As you can tell, we have some pretty strong feelings about this.  =)  It’s not an unpopular opinion, particularly in the scientific community. Some researchers even report being misled about the nature of Discovery’s programs prior to agreeing to take part in them, and argue that their statements were later taken out of context during the editing process.

That very year, though, new Discovery Channel President Rich Ross promised that the network would stop airing such nonsense. “I don’t think it’s right for Discovery Channel, and think it’s something that has run its course. [Mockumentaries have] done very well… but I don’t think it’s something that’s right for us,” Ross told critics in February 2015. “Fake Stuff Out at Discovery Channel,” reported Deadline gleefully.

But what about the programs that aren’t outright fiction, but still choose to emphasize the scarier side of sharks? Ross was named the permanent replacement for Eileen O’Neil, who, in 2014, shared this gem, from the aforementioned The Week article: “O'Neill defended Shark Week's more sensationalized programming, saying that ‘the culture right now... has certainly evolved to kind of appreciate the fear factor of sharks.’ This year's programming, she said, reflects ‘Americans' appetite to be absolutely be challenged on fear levels and fantasy levels and mystery levels, which I think you see throughout the television universe right now.’”

What a load of chum.

People don’t need help fearing sharks, Ms. O’Neill. I think it’s pretty fair to say that sharks are already considered terrifying man-eating machines by your average citizen, and that hampers conservation efforts intended to halt the killing of sharks for sport, for their fins, and — yes — out of fear; the annual death toll of sharks numbers in the tens of millions, with higher estimates approaching 100 million sharks killed per year. In contrast, shark bites typically number under fifty worldwide, with fewer than ten of those encounters being fatal. More people are killed by deer every year than they are by sharks; Bambi just has better PR than Jaws does. (If you’re curious, deer account for about 200 deaths per year.) When you consider the number of human beings in the water globally every single day, the number of people killed or injured by sharks is remarkably low. Problem is, it’s so frightening when it does happen that it looms larger in the public’s mind than much more common causes of death, not unlike the fear of dying in a plane crash when you’re statistically more likely to be killed in a car accident on your way to the airport. So, yeah, people already “kind of appreciate” the “fear factor” of sharks, and the majority of people aren’t interested in helping to save something they fear — no matter how vital to the balance of our ecosystem.

(Incidentally, Rich Ross replaced Eileen O’Neil as the network’s president because O’Neil was promoted to Global Group President at Discovery Studios. Ross left the company last year, and it looks like his role was taken over by Nancy Daniels, whose claims to fame over at TLC include overseeing such classic series as “My 600-lb Life” and “90-Day Fiancé,” so, you know, that’s super encouraging.)

Did Rich Ross keep his promise before his departure? Well, 2017 saw Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps hyped to “race” a great white shark, but at least Megalodon was left to rest in pieces (in the form of fossilized teeth) at the bottom of the ocean.

I still don’t bother tuning in to Shark Week, but I DO love the way sharks are celebrated by other organizations as they ride the wave of this summer institution. Instead of sacrificing your brain cells watching “Capsized: Blood in the Water” (Discovery Channel’s first scripted, feature-length film, starring Josh Duhamel as some dude on a yacht that goes down in a storm and leaves the crew to fend off hungry tiger sharks — seriously? Seriously?), do yourself a favor and follow accounts like the Monterey Bay Aquarium (Instagram, Facebook), whose recent meme made me genuinely LOL:

All that said, I, too, am definitely going to take advantage of this week by holding a contest to win one of my Kawaii Shark ita bags. More details to come!

I leave you with one of my extremely rare comments on social media (heck, I’m not even good at responding to comments on my own posts); when someone I know shared this and it popped up on my timeline, I just couldn’t resist.

I’m fun at parties.  =)

C’mon, Discovery Channel. Do better. Do good. You have the power to make a difference — make it a positive one!

(And, for the record, I used to swim with sharks as part of my job, so it’s not like I haven’t been in the water and touched these toothy bois myself. I talk the talk and swim the swim, baby.)