I love Shark Week, and every year since it started airing on Discovery Channel, I’ve planted myself in front of the television to watch every minute of it.
So last night, I tuned in to watch the first entry in this year’s sharkstravaganza: a documentary about one of the coolest megasharks ever, the prehistoric Megalodon. This thing was freaking huge, with teeth the size of an adult human’s hand, and it is very, very extinct. Discovery’s special started out with what appeared to be “found footage” of some people on a fishing boat that gets hit and sunk by something huge … and I immediately knew something was amiss. The “found footage” was shot the way a professional photographer shoots things, not the way a vacationer holds their video camera. There was no logical way the camera could survive the salt water for the footage to be found. The footage was alleged to have been found in April … but then it got so much worse: Discovery Channel started Shark Week with a completely fake, completely made-up, completely bullshit “documentary” and they lied to their audience about it. They presented it as real.
I turned the show off after about 15 minutes, and watched Breaking Bad on Netflix to get ready for that show’s final season. But I was having a hard time staying focused, because I was angry, and I couldn’t figure out why. Why bother getting upset about yet another stupid “found footage” fake documentary passed off as real? Isn’t that pretty much par for the course on cable these days?
And then I realized why I was (and am) so angry: I care about education. I care about science. I care about inspiring people to learn about the world and universe around us. Sharks are fascinating, and megalodon was an absolutely incredible creature! Discovery had a chance to get its audience thinking about what the oceans were like when megalodon roamed and hunted in them. It had a chance to even show what could possibly happen if there were something that large and predatory in the ocean today … but Discovery Channel did not do that. In a cynical ploy for ratings, the network deliberately lied to its audience and presented fiction as fact. Discovery Channel betrayed its audience.
An entire generation has grown up watching Discovery Channel, learning about science and biology and physics, and that generation trusts Discovery Channel. We tune into Discovery Channel programming with the reasonable expectation that whatever we’re going to watch will be informative and truthful. We can trust Discovery Channel to educate us and our children about the world around us! That’s why we watch it in the first place!
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.
If this had happened on just about any other network, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But Discovery Channel is more than just disposable entertainment on cable television. Discovery Channel inspired an entire generation to “explore your world”, and it is trusted to be truthful. Discovery Channel says its mission is to satisfy curiosity and make a difference in people’s lives by providing the highest quality content, services and products that entertain, engage and enlighten. There is nothing high quality or enlightening about deliberately misleading your audience during what is historically an informative and awesome week of programming. At the very least, Discovery should have made it very clear at the beginning that this was a “What if?” work of complete fiction, presented in a documentary format. Throwing up a 5 second disclaimer at the end of the program just isn’t good enough.
Discovery Channel has a rare chance to apologize to its audience: this year, the network is running a live aftershow with guests from the night’s programming. Someone from the network should use this platform and opportunity to address the audience, apologize for deliberately misleading them, and recommit to providing the highest quality content this week, and every other week out of the year.