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.