From Shark Week To Snark Week

At one point on “30 Rock,” NBC’s show about a fake version of the NBC show “Saturday Night Live,” Tracy Jordan, the demented comic played by Tracy Morgan, mostly as himself, gives Kenneth -- the hyper-dutiful blue-blazered intern -- some advice.  “Live every week like it's Shark Week,” Jordan tells his mentee, gravely.

That’s pretty funny advice, and in any context, Shark Week gets a laugh.  There’s something about combining those two crisp monosyllables, each ending with a K sound, that suggests terror and primordial mystery, all mediated by the comfort of one’s own couch and TV screen, of course. And the idea of a fake comedian using it to give fake advice for a fake show rings true, too, but we will see why later.

Launched 27 years ago, Shark Week not only put the young Discovery Channel on the map, but also has gone on to become its own pop cultural phenomenon, certainly a part of the vernacular, and, most important, an annual ratings powerhouse.  

This year, however, along with more and bigger sponsors and stuntastic in-house promotions, there also seems to be a social media backlash (finlash? Lashnado? ) of tanker-sized proportions, aimed at the channels’ anti-science-ish, P.T. Barnum-ish proclivities.

Indeed, it seems we have a veritable #Sharkwatergate on our hands; one of the popular Twitter handles is #Fakesharkweek. There’s a feeding frenzy going on, and (cue thumping “Jaws”-like music here), it is building.

Before I get to the outrage among scientists and viewers who feel they’ve been duped, I’ll start with the sleeper story of the week that broke on AOL Jobs. Titled “The Truth Behind Shark Week,” it was written by Tom Siebert, who tells the story of how, as a very young and green employee of the equally brand-new Discovery Channel, he inadvertently invented Shark Week, though he has never gotten the credit for it.

(Some of you might know Tom, now a communications consultant to the media and ad industries, from his days as a MediaPost staffer.)

As he tells it in the piece, early in his Discovery employment he was invited to a planning meeting to fill the programming slots during the mid-August dog days of summer.

 “I was young, naive and aghast. I thought I was joining a TV network that wanted to change the world for the better, but I was in a room full of people who had one thing and one thing only on their mind: ratings,” he writes.

Well, that doesn’t exactly blow the lid off the TV game. He continues, however, describing how he seethed at the philistine nature of the ideas brought up at the meeting.

“Finally, self-righteously disgusted… I said, sarcastically, something close to: ‘Look, we know the bigger the animal, the bigger the ratings, and if it can kill you, that's the best. So why don't we just air shark shows all summer?’”

And that’s how a sardonic put-down from a snide 20-something went on to double Discovery’s usual audience numbers, and year after year became a reliable ratings blockbuster.

As the “The Producers” (a successful show and movie based on the idea of fake success) shows, many a money-making idea starts out as a sarcastic joke. H.L. Mencken  supposedly said “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” That goes for P.T. Barnum style flimflam, too.

A lot of the controversy bubbling up maintains that the Discovery programming is too focused on inaccurate, tabloid-style sensationalism, when it could be promoting conservation and education.  Most of the shows offer a distorted impression of sharks as man-eating beasts. That’s great for drama, of course, but statistically, only 3% of the 375 species of sharks are known to bite humans.

But even before the massive box office success of “Jaws,” killer sharks proved to be a money-making myth that was easier to promote than any real scientific understanding of the species. And after all, mass media, and TV, is all about dark myths projected.

Scientists maintain that such fakery and scare tactics  lead fishermen to want to hunt and kill sharks, and take part in the morally reprehensible  business of shark finning, a practice in which fisherman cut the fins off the sharks and throw them back in the water. The fins are then sold to make soup and other delicacies.

The biggest outrage was in reaction to Sunday’s kick-off programming, billed as a documentary called “Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine,” about a 35-foot-long great white shark, the size of a submarine, that attacked a ship off the coast of South Africa. It was a ratings knockout, attracting some 3.8 million viewers.

“Wrath” came with a too-quick-to read disclaimer that the story was “dramatized,” when in effect it was proven to be totally fake.  The footage was computer-generated, and the experts and eyewitnesses and scientists interviewed were actors.

Even worse, it was developed on the heels of last year’s runaway ratings success,Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.” What was never made clear was that the megalodon (could sound like Bin Laden, but scarier) was an ancient shark that is extinct, and the footage was also doctored. That will be rerun this Sunday, with an added hour of “updated information.”

Although the ratings aren’t down, the social media commentariat, educators, and scientists are clearly growing more and more pissed off at all the deception. It’s almost as if they have all become young media employees, shocked at the desperate, lowest common denominator grab for ratings. (Shades of Tom Siebert as a callow youth!)

And the irony is not lost on anyone that the idea of Shark Week was built by a bunch of human sharks circling the boardroom. (Notice I have not made “one jump the shark” joke yet.)

But with the growing social media backlash, if the Discovery Channel continues to run these fake documentaries, there will be blood. My suggestion if they insist on going with the deceptions: At least make the graphics way more sophisticated, using all the latest digital innovations. Judging from the size and ferocity of the killer beasts they like to manipulate for ratings, the Discovery Channel is gonna need a bigger bot. 

 

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17 comments about "From Shark Week To Snark Week ".
  1. Paul Van winkle from FUNCTION , August 14, 2014 at 9:34 a.m.
    Richly-said. And the biggest, most denied, super-duper fakery is: we humans are the demonic predators we should be afraid of. Statistically, and really.
  2. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners , August 14, 2014 at 10 a.m.
    It's all a race to the bottom. Remember when Bravo was a network for cultural programming? A 1985 profile of Bravo in The New York Times observed that most of its programming consisted of international, classic, and independent film. Celebrities such as E. G. Marshall and Roberta Peters provided opening and closing commentary to the films broadcast on the channel. If you think Discovery is egregious, check out Discovery ID with programming like "Dates from Hell" and "Evil Twins," all dramatized as cheap, cheesy and voyeuristic. You keep asking yourself -- what's the next level down? My current guilty pleasure? "Married at First Sight" on FYI -- what used to be the very educational "Biography" network.
  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 14, 2014 at 10:01 a.m.
    Mob mentality. Yes, Paul is right. Humans, the most scary animal, destroy all. How about something like "Bigot Week" or "Ignorance Isn't Bliss Week" ?
  4. daryl rowland from Rowland Consulting , August 14, 2014 at 10:19 a.m.
    Barbara, great piece. Your restraint, BTW, is admirable. The Fonz would be proud.
  5. Claudia Reilly from none , August 14, 2014 at 10:20 a.m.
    What a fun piece and I loved reading how shark week was born. It's such a lively piece. It's as if you do not have the ability to be boring, and I say this because I do not care at all about sharks, didn't hear of shark week until this year on FB, and yet I was absolutely gripped by what you wrote. PS: I am charmed that when I comment here, I am informed that I am "Signed in as Claudia Reilly of none." A ROYAL TITLE AT LAST!
  6. Edward Shain from EMS Associates , August 14, 2014 at 10:24 a.m.
    You're way too kind. Running fake documentaries is fraud. Sounds a lot like Republicans running fake news sites ( http://www.nationaljournal.com/politics/nrcc-launches-fake-news-sites-to-attack-democratic-candidates-20140812 ) Maybe it's time they all moved to Wall St.? YMMV.
  7. Jonathan Hutter from Garrand , August 14, 2014 at 10:53 a.m.
    Last night's show was definitely a "jumper." It appears that "tonic immobility" can be created in a shark by running the camera at slo mo speed.
  8. Dyann Espinosa from IntraStasis , August 14, 2014 at 11:26 a.m.
    Dr. John McCosker Senior Scientist and Chair, Department of Aquatic Biology is consider the leading expert on great white sharks (among other topics). McCosker was the first trained marine biologist to swim with the sharks. He and filmmaker, Al Giddings together in an underwater cage, began the studies that would transform the great white from a fearsome man-eater shrouded in misunderstanding to the dominant, albeit respected, species at the top of the ocean food chain. http://www.calacademy.org/science/heroes/jmccosker/
  9. Bob Garfield from MediaPost , August 14, 2014 at 11:33 a.m.
    When I do my Shark Week interview this week, I will not even hesitate to invoke "jump the shark." Not for an instant.
  10. hank close from Close & Co. , August 14, 2014 at 2:14 p.m.
    There used to be genuine science and learning involved. Like most things that become too big, they turn into grotesque versions of their original selves. Shark Week is now not so much about sharks as it is about itself.
  11. chuck phillips from chuck inc. , August 14, 2014 at 6:01 p.m.
    I remember hearing, a number of years ago, that there had been only one swimmer killed by a shark in the history of the SEAL/UDT teams and that was a freak circumstance. Those Teams were formed in 1944.
  12. John Grono from GAP Research , August 14, 2014 at 9:26 p.m.
    I just want to put a plug in for two Aussies - the late Ron Taylor and his wife Valerie. They went from champion spear-fishers to conservationists and defenders of the deep. They were the first to film great white-sharks without the protection of a cage (Blue Wilderness - 1992) and the first to film sharks at night. And as you know, we have a fair few of the blighters down here!
  13. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER , August 15, 2014 at 4:07 a.m.
    Is shark week always August? I ask because Jaws got a lot of play this month, too. I hadn't seen it in a while and it (though washed out like a lot of 70s pictures) ain't bad. Unlike Godzilla, I guess sharks are monsters that come right up to East Hampton Beach or Martha's Vineyard and frighten the entertainment executives and the pols
  14. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , August 15, 2014 at 2:33 p.m.
    Yes, Shark Week is always in August. Here's the response from the Discovery Channel that didn't get to me in time: For 27 years Shark Week has been the prime showcase for all things shark—science, legend and conservation concerns. A whole generation that has grown up with shark week have awareness and issues for sharks; many marine biologists cite Shark Week as bringing them into that field. Discovery Channel has been one of the biggest contributors to furthering shark research and have paid for technology that has been critical in the studies. Cause to me, it seems like it started out as a ratings ploy and nothing much changed over the years. Hardly shocking--it's a bidness, after all.
  15. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER , August 16, 2014 at 8:52 a.m.
    I asked my niece, a candidate for a doctorate in marine biology what she thought of shark week and she sent me this: So, one of the biggest problems that shark scientists have with sharkweek is that friends and colleagues got duped into being on the programming. Discovery Channel would tell the scientists that their work was going to be show-cased and then instead, all of the footage was changed and cut to fit what the producers wanted. The questions that are asked on the show are NOT the same questions that these people were asked during the filming. Last year, many people started to believe that Megalodon could still be in the oceans today because of a fake documentary. Megalodon was warm blooded and gave birth in shallow estuaries; it wouldn't be found in the deep ocean and we would see a 30 ft long shark coming into the shallow waters to pup (give birth). See this blog about it (by my friend and colleague David Shiffman): http://l.facebook.com/l/AAQGV9l-9AQFUHTdUGmJFUvt1DDaBZcPO-JiWywkIKS2GSQ/www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=17392
  16. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , August 17, 2014 at 12:32 a.m.
    Hey Garfield-- listened to OTM very closely, and didn't hear one mention of "jumping the shark."
  17. Jim English from FJC , August 17, 2014 at 1:29 a.m.
    Thanks Barbara. Evidently shark research on DC about as legit as sharks sitting around boardroom at business presentation. (Funny stuff for Snickers Peanut Butter Squares a few years back.)