The Discovery Channel promotes Shark Week–which starts tonight–as “the most wonderful week of the year.” For the first time in two years, it’s possible that may once again be true.
After airing fiction and then more fiction, the network’s new president awesomely declared fake shows are done. Ratings dropped last year, so there’s more than just an ethical incentive to return to reality.
In advance of this year’s record 19 hours of prime-time programs, I wrote about these two things about Shark Week:
- Will Shark Week Get Back to Reality This Year? I talked to Discovery’s new-ish president, Rich Ross, and its VP of documentaries and specials, Howard Swartz, and they both say the answer is yes. Ross told me: “I think fiction, as long as fiction is identified as fiction, can be possible. But it’s not fiction presented as nonfiction.”
- How Shark Week’s lies damaged truth in our culture. My thoughts about the larger issues here. What are the ramifications of the last two Shark Weeks? Discovery’s programs were, of course, just one example of what so many other networks and reality shows had done–i.e. betrayed our trust by presenting fiction as reality.
Besides watching, I’ll be following @whysharksmatter, aka shark researcher and Ph.D. student David Shiffman and the network’s most visible critic, to see how well Shark Week is doing this year. Shiffman knows the subject matter and knows Shark Week, which he’s watched since he was a kid.
When I interviewed him, he told me that Discovery’s previously problematic ways of presenting information extend far beyond the Megalodon lies. Perhaps most egregiously, beyond betraying scientists, some shows and Discovery’s social media consistently get facts about sharks wrong. “Wildly, ridiculously inaccurate,” Shiffman said.
Also, previous specials have questions as if the answers hadn’t already been discovered, and the summer stunt repeatedly fails to reflect true diversity. “If you watch Shark Week, you would get the impression that the only marine biologists in the world are white men,” he said. Over time, there was also increasing sensationalism about shark attacks: “In an average year, more humans are bitten by other humans [in New York] than are bitten by sharks in the whole world.” (That hysteria continues.)
Shiffman also told me, “I, for one, am a big fan of television documentaries. I think they’re a really powerful way to reach people in an informal way, someone that maybe won’t go to one of my lectures at a museum but will turn on a TV.”
That’s why Shark Week matters so much, and I hope those who turn on the TV will both learn and be entertained.