Discovery Channel: Friend or Foe of Sharks?

This is the question that has been floating around the marine blogs this week.  The complaint is that Discovery Channel “is promoting negative stereotypes about sharks at a time when we should be promoting conservation,” i.e. portraying sharks as evil, vicious mankillers.  Of course, and rightly so, this has not set well with conservationists.  Last year a group of shark conservationists last year met with the Discovery Channel for over four hours.  Although the specific outcomes of that meeting are not clear, it appears little has changed.  According to the Biochemical Soul,

keep in mind the titles of the first few shows for Shark Week when you read Paul’s answers: the 2 hour premier “Blood in the Water,” followed by “Deadly Waters,” followed by “Day of the Shark 2″ (about “when a great white breaks through a 300-pound aluminum shark cage and traps the divers inside. Another shark tackles a former Navy Seal in shallow waters”), followed by “Sharkbite Summer” (about “The bite-by-bite account of America’s notorious “Summer of the Shark” in 2001.”)

WhySharksMatter at the Southern Fried Scientist scored an interview with Paul Gasek, Senior Science Editor and Executive Producer for the Discovery Channel asking him a series of insightful but tough questions posed by readers at the blog.  Overall, I am personally unimpressed, indeed really unimpressed, with Gasek’s answers.  They are deflective, shallow, and canned, aimed more at defending the status quo and Discovery Channel’s actions than real critical examination.  As one of the commenters at Southern Fried Scientist, a shark conservationists who participated in the meeting last year, states “they care about sharks uniquely in terms of how much money they can make from them.”  Let’s face it Discovery Channel is a for profit business owned by the publicly traded Discovery Holding Company with a board and stock holders that are answered to. The business model is not to educate or conserve it is to make money.

So do vicious shark attacks sell?  Discovery Channel thinks so.  The same commenter from above also said in this meeting that Gasek referred proudly to the programming of shark week as shark porn.  I tend to disagree.  To echo the point made by Irradiatus, “I feel really sad for people who think that just because something is factual then its ipso facto “stone cold boring”. You don’t have to make a documentary into a craptastic stereotypical fear-mongering piece of eye-candy to make it fascinating. Anyone seen “Planet Earth”?”  I think when you rely on the cheap sale it does not demonstrate insight into what the public wants but rather laziness and lack of creativity on your part to get the public excited about something else.

The readers of Southern Fried Scientist came up with these ideas in less than a week

My readers have suggested dozens of other types of documentaries than those that focus on sharks attacking people. One notes that since sharks are such well adapted hunters, that simply watching them hunt for seals or fish should offer plenty of thrills to DC’s viewers. Several suggested showing movies about the shark fin fishery, or how sharks are crucial to marine ecosystems. One suggested a movie about some of the world’s weirdest sharks (many deepwater animals are crazy looking), another suggestion was to follow a shark-killing tournament while interspersing conservation facts, another involves shark tanks in aquariums around the world. Others suggest a show about animals in the ocean deadlier than sharks, such as venomous animals. I saw two great conservation-minded documentaries at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival: “Requiem”, a woman’s quest to swim with the world’s most dangerous sharks to learn if they really are dangerous (interspersed with conservation facts throughout), and “Shark Nicole/Great White Shark Odyssey”, which chronicled the life of an individual shark and the threats she faced as she migrated across the oceans. There are many more suggestions as well.

I want to return however to address what concerned me the most and prompted me to write this post.  From Southern Fried Scientist…

WSM: Do you believe that how movies, the news, and networks like the Discovery Channel portray sharks affects how the public views sharks? For example, in the scientific community, it is widely acknowledged that the movie Jaws has encouraged public fear of sharks. We can’t help but notice that a poster for this year’s Shark Week bears a strong resemblance to the movie poster for Jaws. Though your website has lots of conservation information, do you believe that some of your programming promotes fear of sharks?

PG: At Discovery Channel, we pride ourselves on telling compelling and accurate stories.  Shark Week is no different.  Two of our shows this year are based on actual historical events: one is about the first U.S.-based shark attacks on record, off the New Jersey shore in 1916, and the other is about the infamous summer of 2001 when more than 50 swimmers were attacked by sharks off U.S. beaches.  It is a fact that sharks sometimes mistake people for prey and attack.  In these, and many of our shows, we are digging deeper than the media headlines and telling the stories behind the stories.

In light of these comments it clear that Discovery Channel has not intention of dropping the sensationalized mankiller programming. Indeed this year a mysterious swag box was sent out to bloggers around the net. The PR stunt was a box filled with a handwritten note “This jar holds a story – the story of a single tragic incident that needs to be unlocked. Dive in, investigate the evidence and discover what lies beneath the surface of”, a jar filled with a large shark tooth, a boat key on a float, a swimsuit with a shark bite out of it, a beach closed to swimmers sign, etc. These boxes, noticeably and likely intentionally not sent to any of the ocean bloggers, are promoting the shows on the 2001 and 1916 attacks above. Where are the PR kits for shark conservation and education?

9 Replies to “Discovery Channel: Friend or Foe of Sharks?”

  1. Well written. In my opinion Discovery has gone off the rails and is hyping the killer shark mythos as much as they can.



    Shark Week and it’s 29 million viewers is a cash cow for Discovery and after years of experimentation they have a formula that works, blood and guts.

    The question is, how far will they go with the formula until someone is hurt, or the rebellion against Shark Week becomes a pitchfork and flaming torch affair.

    Will it ever?

    FYI: Love your new site banner way cool!

  2. Whilst so-called sports ‘shark hunters’ still slaughter these beautiful creatures for fun, the media has a responsibility to portray sharks in a way that doesn’t demonise them. When sharks have legal protection, perhaps it will be OK. Like tigers, which sometimes get a bad TV press, but in most cases have protection including CITES.

  3. Sadly it’s a case of ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’.. :-( I guess we can only continue to work through Marine Education forums and the like to advocate for these fishes.

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