The Discovery Channel ditches science for Shark Week

30 07 2007

One of my first encounters with the Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” was in the summer of 1990, watching a documentary featuring shark scholar John McCosker with a dead baby great white shark, pointing out its bits of anatomy and why they were important. The narrator’s description of the sharks miraculous blood-circulation system, allowing it to maintain a body temperature several degrees centigrade about the surrounding seawater, is as clear in my mind today as it was shortly after viewing it. Even when turning to the subject of shark attacks, the approach was minimalist, letting famous photograph Al Giddings recall an attack on his friend Leroy French among the Farallon Islands off California; it was a beautiful, fair documentary that was reflected more of the nature of the Great White than its more famous monstrous media persona. Other shows documented shark tracking techniques, their sensitivity to different kinds of light, and there was at least some inclusion of science into many of the programs I watched year after year.

Then, a few years ago, things started to change. There weren’t as many shows about the sharks themselves as melodramatic retelling of shark attacks, lots of fake blood, spliced stock footage, and terrible synthesizer music being more common than anything else. Conservation was almost never mentioned, the larger focus being on attacks (even if there were the obligatory mentions that attacks don’t happen all that often). Indeed, the Discovery Channel hit rock bottom with the schlock-fest “Anatomy of a Shark Bite,” a self-serving piece of junk that tried to sensationalize an attack of shark biologist Eric Ritter, the metallic reconstructions of shark jaws giving rise to terrible “documentaries” like “Hippo vs. Bull Shark.” Given the downturn of the programming, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that in 2000 I assisted the “Creative Works Team” to find information about sharks for the Discovery Channel, my keys hanging from a lanyard that I was given as a “thank you” for my work for the channel.

This year, the 20th Anniversary of Shark Week, things are worse than ever. While some decent older documentaries like “Jurassic Shark” are thrown in, the new programs are mostly more of the same blood-and-guts survivor stories, one of which is called “Top Five Eaten Alive.” The synopsis of the show is as follows;

Each year dozens of people are eaten alive by sharks. These are the world’s five most amazing survivor stories.

For a short time I worked on organizing and researching cases in the Global Shark Attack File, and I can tell you that dozens of people every year are not “eaten alive” by sharks. There are a number of attacks every year (so low as to be almost insignificant risk-wise), but there have been very few cases where victims have actually be consumed by sharks. Attacks by Great White sharks, for instance, are primarily of the “bite and spit” variety, sharks being unsure whether surfers or swimmings are seals, and so they take people into their mouths and then let them go almost immediately; if they really wanted to eat us, the inch-long serrated teeth would make short work of prey with a few side-to-side thrashings of the head. Again, some people have been eaten by sharks, but I am hard pressed to think of even one substantiated case where someone was swallowed hole or “eaten alive.” This kind of sensationalist B.S. certainly doesn’t belong on a channel claiming to be educational, but then again we know the Discovery Channel is no longer educational, and columnist David Hinckley has pointed out that it’s just another version of pushing the envelope in one area (disgusting and bloody content instead of sex, drugs, or profanity), only there may be more leeway since it’s perceived to have some educational value.

Despite it being well known that sharks are in serious trouble all over the globe, the Discovery Channel continues to ignore there is a problem (see the film Sharkwater if you have any doubts). Instead, they continue to revisit the 1916 shark attacks off of New Jersey (some years saying it was a Bull Shark, others that it was a Great White), “Black December” off South Africa, the USS Indianapolis tragedy, and other tried-and-true horror stories. While the Discovery Channel endorsed the well-made horror film Open Water a few years ago (featuring one absolutely awful documentary about a woman stranded at sea, her camera capturing “Death Tape footage” even though she survived the ordeal relatively unharmed), they seem to do absolutely nothing when it comes to conservation. It’s too late to change this years programming, but concerned shark fans (people who have looked forward to watching Shark Week every year since it’s inception) are starting to speak up about the irresponsible programming. Science should not be a ratings game, and there is no reason that the Discovery (and even National Geographic) Channel should continue to ignore the real horror story; what we’re doing to our oceans.

Update: In attempting to recall at least one case of someone being “eaten alive” I remembered two files from the mid-1800′s in South Carolina. A sailor was taking a swim off the side of his ship when a supposedly 25-foot long shark came along and, as the story goes, swallowed him. Another file from that same year tells of a man in a sailor’s uniform found in the stomach of a 25-foot long shark caught off South Carolina, and I have reason to believe that this is the same shark, sailor, and case. The date of the attack was listed as “circa 1840″ and the capture of the shark is listed as 1837, so although the capture would seem to precede the attack the actual date of attack is only rough at best. Unfortunately many of the original records were lost due to fire or other causes, and so we’ll probably never know for sure.

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12 responses

30 07 2007
Zach Miller

Sounds like I’m not missing anything. Aren’t sharks fascinating in their own right, without having to melodramatize them? Why not have a show about shark diversity? Rays and skates? That wierd six-gilled Japanese shark? There’s so much awesome information about sharks–it’s a shame that the Discovery Channel is so locked in to the whole “GREAT WHITE SHARKS HAVE HUGE TEETH AND BITE THINGS!” mentality.

30 07 2007
laelaps

Definitely so; you would think with nearly 400 of shark species in existence, they’d find something more to talk about that the handful of species that have attacked people. Even though the sequels have stopped (at least for now) the “Jaws” mentality still sells.

30 07 2007
Anne-Marie

The Discovery and Learning Channels are NOT what they used to be. TLC is now just home improvement shows, and Discovery is getting more and more sensationalistic and less and less scientific all the time. There are still some good programs, but the lineup just isn’t as solid as it once was.

31 07 2007
Oldfart

The Discovery Channel has become the Geraldo Rivera of science channels. They DO fund some scientific expeditions but only in the hope of finding something truly unusual or bizarre. The Learning Channel went to hell some time ago. I believe both were started with good intentions but ratings and income from advertising took control after a few years. Perhaps some Republican bought the channels and decided to make money instead of science. (I have no idea who owns them.)
Their technique is simple. Set up 55 minutes of speculation about something (say, Noah’s Ark). Then, because it IS supposedly an educational channel, admit in the last 5 minutes that no such evidence exists. That keeps people such as my wife stringing along……

1 08 2007
Tom H

I always preferred Croc week instead of Shark week. At least they attempted to educate the viewers with those shows along with raising awareness about the crocodile and the rest of nature in general. Quite the opposite of Shark Week, where big teeth and potential man eating “monsters” are showcased.

10 08 2007
Troy

So I ran across this blog and found I’d be preaching to the choir complaining about the shallowness of shark week. So I decided to do something about it. I googled for discovery and shark week and came across the site, and lo! There was a survey! Pretty excited to give ‘em a piece of my mind I jumped right in. Well they just wanted to know what kind of credit card I use.

I guess that sums up Discovery and Shark Week pretty well.

Well I’d like to say I dug deeper and found a place where people could at least yell at somebody at the Discovery channel, but the flash app that runs shark week is broken for Firefox on Windows. Can’t click anywhere.

So eat my carp, shark week.

10 08 2007
laelaps

Thanks Troy. I’ve written them as well, and I know that other people (like members of the e-mail list Shark-L) have been trying to talk to Discovery about making next year’s Shark Week less of a fiasco. Given the relatively bad reviews it’s gotten this year, I hope it provides enough impetus to improve the 2008 line-up (or at least not produce another film like Shark Man, yikes). Hopefully they’ll wise up, but somehow I get the feeling that it’ll still mostly be about the money.

3 09 2007
max

discovery channel has been bought dead by republicans . for sure .
last 2 years , whenever talking about wild lives , they can shamlessly and skilfully pouring words like design purpose creation miracle and still telling themselves nobody notices those . each hounting house crap show is for each priest to save the day . each host can be hired only when they claim to be christian .

and of course there`s more :
all the weapon shows , all the construction shows , all the plane crash shows , all the traditional male working class interests shows , all the cia is great shows , all the how scarry those iroqs are shows , all the family value is the only value shows . and finally , yes it shows :
discoery channel is just another lousy sell out dirtted in tv history .

14 11 2007
Sarah

Hello!
I just wanted to thank you for posting the link to Sharkwater. I was searching for reviews on this year’s Shark Week, and your blog popped right up in google. It’s through your blog that I was informed of this documentary, and now I’m trying to see if the student run film theater can bring the film to campus for winter term.

I’m enjoying the writing. I’ll be checking in and subscribing!

Thank you,
Sarah

27 04 2008
Mediocore Clothing

Sharks > Science

it’s a fact

2 08 2008
c.park

i have to agree that Discovery has been doing a “less than perfect” job at some of the shark shows but i wouldn’t say they’ve compleatly gone to shit either. Some of the shows like the recent “mysteries of the shark coast” are very educational and the show “american shark ” is good as well, but i admit some of the shows like “Air jaws” and “top 5 eaten alive” are although not as bad as they would’ve been in the past still not focusing on conservation.

19 06 2011
New York furniture restoration

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