Why Shark Week is still lying

Discovery Channel’s Shark Week starts Sunday, and the programs on the schedule have names such as Sharkageddon and Zombie Sharks. Despite the dramatic and entertaining titles, these are based in science and fact; the former is about tiger sharks in Hawaii while the latter “explores tonic immobility, a catatonic zombie-like state that can be achieved in sharks.”

However, last in the list of the personality-driven, sensationally titled documentaries and specials is this:

In April 2013, a fishing vessel off the coast of South Africa was attacked, killing all on board. A TV crew documented Marine Biologist Collin Drake as he worked to determine the predator responsible. Megalodon: The New Evidence presents Shark Week viewers with shocking new evidence and interview footage.

Despite the suggestion of a search for scientific “evidence” by a biologist, there can be no such thing: Collin Drake doesn’t exist and Megalodon is extinct. What hasn’t gone extinct, alas, is the network’s willingness to lie to its viewers.

Last year’s fake documentary was only disclaimed briefly and disingenuously at its conclusion (it used the word “dramatized,” and science-based documentaries sometimes dramatize events, which doesn’t mean they’re fake). As a result, a lot of people missed that and believed what they’d been shown. These aren’t dummies who think ABC killed reality show contestants, they’re people who learned to trust the Discovery Channel and Shark Week and had no reason to doubt a well-produced special that actually fabricated its evidence and used actors. In response, the network played dumb.

I asked Discovery about this year’s megalodon program and whether or not it was also fictional, and a spokesperson told me:

“This year, in Megalodon New Evidence, we address the skepticism head on. There is an audience that loves to exercise their sense of curiosity and embrace the journey they go on with Megaladon…and there is an audience that prefers the shows that are straight scientific exploration. The good news is that we have enough programming to satisfy both.”

As I explained in response to that statement, it’s hard for me to apply “curiosity” to scientific fact that the shark is unquestionably extinct. If someone is curious about megalodon, there’s a lot to explore about its extinction, but not about whether such a shark is currently killing people. If I’m curious about what would happen if I dropped an egg onto concrete, and am curious if the egg will sprout wings and fly around and sing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” there’s no journey I need to go on to discover that my theory is bogus.

I also asked why the network has chosen to broadcast fiction instead of fact during Shark Week, and a spokesperson told me:

“Shark Week offers something for everyone. We examine the conservation, science and technology, as well the mysteries and questions that still surround these creatures.”

Discovery Canada fakes a shark sighting

Earlier this summer, the often-clever marketing for Shark Week also chose to mislead people. I’m not talking about the amusing, obviously fake promos with Snuffy the Seal (last year’s promo was followed up by a fun new promo this year), which are clever and don’t mislead. Instead, it was this:

It looks like iPhone video of a shark in Lake Ontario. It’s staged and fake.

A Discovery Canada press release eventually admitted in a completely unapologetic way that “that the widely-circulated video of a shark swimming in Lake Ontario is, in fact, not a real shark,” revealing in one sentence that “The video of the incredibly life-like prosthetic model shark is the first stage of a multi-level marketing campaign” and in the next sentence saying “Nissan is the presenting sponsor.”

A Discovery representative told me that Discovery Canada is independent of Discovery Networks US and Discovery Networks International, and sent this statement attributed to Discovery Canada’s president and general manager, Paul Lewis:

“Our intent was to stimulate discussion over whether sharks could survive in the Great Lakes — and we certainly did that. As soon as it became clear that the marketing campaign was raising concerns, we immediately pulled back the curtain and explained our intent. We did so several weeks in advance of the original plan because it was the responsible thing to do. There was no intent to deceive or we would have continued the campaign without comment.”

Although this came from a separate company, and though it’s good that they admitted what they’d done, it still hurt the Discovery Channel’s brand in the same way that the megalodon lie did last year.

An ethicist and philosophy professor, Janet Stemwedel, told Discover magazine that “this video was posted with the intent to deceive. Discovery willfully deceived members of the public–members of its intended and actual audience–which is really hard to reconcile with its claim to be the #1 non-fiction media company. The lie itself, released into the world, damages trust.”

In her must-read story, Discover’s Christie Wilcox writes that this video “directly harmed the Lake Ontario community” and “their constant campaign of fraud is damaging to shark science and conservation.” Some experts who talked to the magazine said they wouldn’t work with the channel in the future because of its behavior with this stunt and its decision to air fiction masquerading as fact.

A sad trajectory for a strong network

If the Discovery Channel’s cynical ploy for ratings and social media conversation hurts itself, perhaps that will lead to change. But clearly, it works for them. Last year’s fake documentary was the highest-rated Shark Week program ever, so of course they’d produce another one, especially considering the network’s shoulder-shrugging response to criticism last year. It’s actually somewhat surprising that they’re not airing more fiction this year.

This is sad because Discovery could previously be relied upon to engage, entertain, and educate all at once. It’s one of the few cable networks that have embraced reality television yet didn’t stray from its original mission, instead telling true stories with the same commitment to quality that its educational programming was known for.

Now Discovery has become a network that might air Sharknado–and pretend that it was real.

Update: More fake documentaries, plus lying to scientists

Monday, ion reported two disturbing things:

  1. More than the megalodon documentaries are fake: Last year’s Voodoo Sharks and this year’s Monster Hammerhead are both about mythical creatures, while Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine is also fake.
  2. To get credible scientists on camera in some of these faux documentaries, producers lied to them and manipulated what they said during interviews. That’s all too common on some reality TV shows, and while documentaries would have to certainly edit or condense them, deceiving subjects and manipulating their words to support fiction masquerading as science is awful.

Read the full story. Discovery’s obvious contempt for not just its viewers, but also for science, is pretty sickening.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.