Discovery’s Channel’s beloved Shark Week began Sunday, one that had been hyped with a clever promo. The opening special earned Shark Week’s highest ratings ever.
But the network also presented a fictional show with fake footage to its viewers as nonfiction, destroying its credibility for many of them.
Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives‘s lie started in its title, since it was about an extinct shark. When it concluded, it briefly showed this disclaimer:
“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 may be.”
That’s an understatement. As a Discover magazine writer wrote in an open letter to the network, “Megalodons were real, incredible, fascinating sharks. There’s a ton of actual science about them that is well worth a two hour special. … You chose, instead, to mislead your viewers with 120 minutes of bullshit.”
Incredibly, it was produced for Discovery by Pilgrim Studios, creators of Top Shot, Dirty Jobs, and other high-quality nonfiction, which makes this decision all the more baffling.
(Animal Planet’s similar fake documentary Mermaids: The Body Found fooled some people, but it was also more clearly fictional, starting with its subject matter.)
Here’s how the network described the special in a press release:
“In Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives (WT), Discovery brings SHARK WEEK viewers on a search for a massive killer great white shark responsible for a rash of fatalities off the coast of South Africa. One controversial scientist believes that the shark responsible could be Megalodon, a 60-foot relative of the great white that is one of the largest and most powerful predators in history. Our oceans remain 95% unexplored, and this massive prehistoric predator has always been shrouded in secrecy, but after a rash of newly discovered evidence, authorities are forced to investigate whether this predator, long thought to be extinct, could still be lurking in our deepest oceans. A crew of scientists and shark experts examine evidence.”
That sounds like a plausible nonfiction special. But the footage, below, was clearly not.
Wil Wheaton dissects this well, saying Discovery owes viewers an apology:
“In a cynical ploy for ratings, the network deliberately lied to its audience and presented fiction as fact. Discovery Channel betrayed its audience. …
Last night, Discovery Channel betrayed that trust during its biggest viewing week of the year. Discovery Channel isn’t run by stupid people, and this was not some kind of mistake. Someone made a deliberate choice to present a work of fiction that is more suited for the SyFy channel as a truthful and factual documentary. That is disgusting, and whoever made that decision should be ashamed.”
Shark Week's sketchy history
Over its 33 years, Discovery Channel's Shark Week has had some highs and lows, celebrating and educating us about sharks, but also presenting fiction as fact, lying to scientists and misrepresenting what they say, and making sharks seem scarier than they are. Here's a look at Shark Week's history, and why it's so disappointing.
"To say that there aren't women in shark science is utterly ridiculous," marine biologist Jasmin Graham told me. Yet that's what Discovery's Shark Week and National Geographic's Sharkfest claimed when I asked them why they focused on white male shark scientists in their marketing and casting. An investigation.
The director of Starz's The Chair also was responsible for filming a memorable shot of a shark grabbing a (fake) seal. Here's how he filmed it.
Discovery Channel is defending its decision to betray its viewers trust in the network by acting as if science doesn't really matter.
Despite getting criticism for its fake Megalodon special, Shark Week returned with "Megalodon: The New Evidence," a new piece of fiction pretending to be factual.
Shark Week ate through one of the last barriers between facts and make-believe in our culture, and made it even more difficult for people to know who to trust and what is true. Sound familiar?
In 2015, Discovery's new president, Rich Ross, committed to moving the network away from fake documentaries and dumb stunt programming. Here's what he said. (He left the company three years later.)
Did the Discovery Channel live up to its promise to eradicate fiction? Was there a new commitment to science and scientists? And how did it do in the ratings?
Update, Aug. 7, 2013: This story was edited to add the two additional disclaimer sentences that also briefly appeared on screen; the original version of this story included just one that referenced events being “dramatized.”