Discovery Channel Owes Its Viewers An Apology

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.

175 thoughts on “Discovery Channel Owes Its Viewers An Apology”

  1. I think some of the commentors are missing the point. Yes, it is not uncommon of shows to present a “what if” scenario or a dramatized version of facts, but Wil’s (and other’s) point is that this channel has established itself as a credible, fact-based, educational, science channel. All of it’s shows have been under this umbrella and it’s viewers have come to expect and trust that it will continue to be. To slip a show that is uncharacteristic the channel’s core expectations into the lineup without a warning just isn’t fair and betrays the viewers trust. It’s all about the loss of credibility that it Discover Channel took years to build.

    1. OK, here is my two cents worth (if it is even worth that.) First, we know Discovery stopped most of their educational programming long ago. We saw this with American Chopper, and the likes of those shows. I think the mockumentary is a satirical way for the network to get back at its own crowd for falling into the education abyss. They will undoubtedly have the masses talking at the water coolers, while the informed are sitting back laughing. Its like revenge for the nerds.

      1. I have to agree with you and many other commentators. Discovery Chanel, like the others, hasn’t been a place for reliable information about much of anything in almost 20 years.

        That being said, I am disgusted that they didn’t have the decency to be up-front about it. There are far too many viewers that believe what they are getting is real science, real educational programming. It may have been transmitted tong-in-cheek, but let’s be honest, in the end they did it for the advertising revenue and have no interest in their own mission to educate and inspire.

    2. established itself as a credible, fact-based, educational, science channel , Since when? I don’t see how the Drama between Teutel Sr. and Jr. made it a fact based anything! Amish Mafia? Are they involved in this truth? It’s entertainment tv now, and anyone who believes different deserves to be fooled.

  2. Discovery Channel “jumped the shark” a long time ago. The only place you can go now-a-days and expect real learning is “The Science Channel”. TLC, HIST, and DSC are nearly worthless now.

    1. I agree 100%. Although I haven’t completely “cut the cord” I now rely mostly on my Apple TV (jailbroken) for my viewing pleasure, and actually find a WHOLE LOT of amazing stuff right there on YouTube. You can actually watch complete documentaries in HD, like “Chasing Ice” and literally thousands of British programming — BBC’s Horizon comes to mind — but what is amazing is the complete deterioration of almost ALL the cable channels. In the late 90s, A&E was a consistently interesting channel, with LOTS of excellent shows such as Columbo, brilliant documentaries and excellent History shows. Frankly, not having watched it for over a year now, I don’t know if it’s still the Dog The Bounty Hunter PawnStars Ice Road Trucker channel, but all I know is that it is completely unwatchable, as the Food Channel, AKA TopChefDinersDriveInsPastryChefRamsay’sNightmares etc. Channel, the History Channel, which now rarely actually includes any shows on History but mostly mixes it up with a mixture of Housewives programs . . . well, it’s all become the same, now, hasn’t it? 500 channels of 24/7 dreck.
      Then they all go one step further every so often (more “often” than “every so”) with weekend marathons of Pawn Stars or Dog The Bounty Hunters ad infinitum . . . it’s really astounding, baffling and annoying that they take us for such fools, but I guess the ratings are what counts, and that means an awful lot of people must be watching these gems of turd-dom, or they wouldn’t be showing them.

      Shark Week? I’ll be giving that a miss.

    1. It’s a waste-land. It used to be exciting to see what might be on. I remember growing up with Public Television, the only place to see documentary programming and they did it real well. Remember Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or James Burke’s Connections? Groundbreaking. Remember being assigned, in school, watching a documentary and then writing about it? That programming was made to be used as part of an educational unit.

      That programming wasn’t TV, it was an Event.

  3. You guys really don’t get it. This was never about pushing the idea that the Megalodon was real. It was about pushing the notion of humans creating their own dangers by once again pushing the Global Warming theory. Discovery Channel is in the tank for the Green crowd, and they want to scare us into thinking that we’re impacting the environment and causing things like this to be a possibility. Just as their fake Mermaid show was all about painting the military in a negative light.

  4. Have you seen that Mermaid documentary.. That & this Megalodon show erk me to no end.. these shows belong on the SyFy Channel not a Factual Channel dedicated to Science & Discovery! Not that I dislike the SyFy channel, but there I would have known what I was in for and had enjoyed it for what it was.

    This would be like CNN running occasional stories like “The Onion” has. Not that any news network currently has much credibility as it is.

    1. So we watch a lot of Discovery programming at home. Discovery being more than just The Discovery Channel (The Science Channel, Animal Planet, etc). I know exactly how you feel, Wil, because when the Mermaid documentary came out, I thought it would be based on the actual reports of people claiming to have seen a real mermaid, as we know has happened often enough in human history. Instead, it was a CGI nightmare passed off as science. It’s one thing to show cut scenes of what life for an ancient or imaginary or suspected creature might have looked like when alive. It’s quite another to insert fake “eyewitness” footage into fake interviews with actors posing as scientists and witnesses, with misleading disclaimers, if any. I wish I had watched the mermaid show before letting my kids watch it, because now my daughter is convinced that mermaids are really really real, because she saw it on the discovery channel. Fuck that. It’s one thing to play make believe when everyone knows it’s pretend, but passing it off as science is irresponsible and frankly despicable behavior on the part of Discovery Networks.

  5. It’s really a sad thing to sit and watch The Discovery channel slide into the dark abyss of television where the likes of TLC reside, in real time. The only person to blame for this is us, the American public, that vote with our viewership. Unfortunately and embarrassingly, TLC is owned by Discovery, and Discovery can see what gets the viewers. What the American public has shown TLC, and subsequently Discovery, is that we are more interested in a fat kid that wants to own a cupcake machine, than we are about learning the history of our planet. We’re talking about a network founded by the Department of Education to be an informative and instructional network, and now there is nothing on the network that could even be accidentally misconstrued for education. People say they’re worried about “The way this country is heading”, and I share their concern, but it’s not because we’re taking God out of schools, it’s not because the president is black, it’s not because everyone just realized the NSA was formed 60 years ago to spy on us… It’s because the vast majority of the American public is fucking retarded. Yes I said it. Fucking retarded. And there even seems to be a direct relation between how stupid someone is, and how firm to their convictions they supposedly are(see: ignorant). A wise man is not one which knows everything, but one which is willing to learn, and admit when they’re wrong, and we’ve shown as a society, we are not interested in learning.

    1. YES! This is what I have been insisting upon for a long time and you said it beautifully, my friend. This culture of anti intellectualism is disgusting and makes me hate people. When I read your post I honestly said “fuck yeah!” aloud. It gave me a little more faith in humanity.

  6. I am probably repeating what was already said here… but I believe it was made clear weeks before airing that this was a “mockumentary”? I know I had read that it was last week, hence why I didn’t watch it…

  7. Everyone is complaining and mad about false documentation on the Discovery Channel. Now you know how I feel when I hear about evolution all the time! It is still a theory and so many people are duped into thinking its fact. There are still so many holes in this theory but it fits an agenda so we’ve had it shoved down our throats. I guess it goes to show, you tell people something long enough they will eventually believe it.

  8. I have to respectfully disagree. Was it a mockumentary? Yup. Was it a ploy for ratings? You betcha. But here’s the thing – even though it was those things, shark week brings in the most viewers that Discovery will see all year. If a less-than-scientific show can get more folks to tune in, get them excited, then that is more people who will get advertisements for the hard-science shows. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll stick around and learn some things. They may watch beyond shark week, and start getting exposed to some real science. And bigger picture thinking, if they have some kids in the room, maybe thinking about critters like the megalodon will inspire them to study the sciences. Ultimately, mockumentary or not, I’d rather see people watching Discovery than watching whatever reality TV show garbage is being marketed these days, because every minute they’re learning something is a win for humanity.

    1. You’re making a specious argument to try and rationalize what Discovery is doing. If you talk to most people in the business world, they will tell you that your name and reputation are the most important things. Once damaged, you cannot change people’s perceptions back. This is the problem at the heart of Discovery Channel’s decision. They show garbage all the time. I know that; you know that; everyone knows that. However, Discovery Channel also mixes in education among the entertainment. On Deadliest Catch, you’re transported to remote places with monstrous fish. While most of the show is heightened and dramatized, there are actual facts about the fish scattered throughout the broadcast. This is in stark contrast with the Megalodon mockumentary that pushes false facts in a broadcast that at least attempts to feel genuine. The whole time I was confused because I did professionally retouch out of college. The images and video all looked spoofed. But I kept watching because I wanted to believe. Despite Discovery’s foray into garbage entertainment, Shark Week had always been above the fold. But the fine print at the end sent me into utter outrage that people who watched the show and didn’t watch all the way through may believe this mockumentary was true. If ignorance was less of a problem in this country, I would take it in good humor. However, too many people really do believe in things without checking the facts. Your assumption that all money brought to Discovery through Nielsen ratings is highly flawed. If anything, increased viewership on this show reveals to Discovery that it should push the boundaries more and it will make more money. They don’t have a constant ratio of good to bad programming and because the bad makes more money that trickles down to the good programming. No, the result is the ratio of good programming decreases steadily until there is none left. This is no win. That is a hopelessly naive belief. For example, CSI premiered on TV in 2000. Enrollment in CSI-related majors jumped astronomically. Upon realizing that CSI did not depict the workload accurately, CSI-related jobs and majors then descended back toward their original number. That spike did not benefit anyone. Schools, like my alma mater, dumped money into an exploding degree, just to pull the plug on the program only a few years later when students started getting more educated. Waste of money, if you ask me.

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  10. Discovery Channel is becoming the next History Channel…reality trash. I watched the show with my kids and they were confused if this was real or not. Like you Wil, when I saw the “footage” I knew it was a load of crap. Sad that you have to tell kids that it is all for ratings. I should have known that the Discovery channel had lost its ways when I saw the promo for “Tickle” the moonshiner. Sad… I primarily watch Science or H2 if I want to learn something interesting about science.

  11. One last note:

    It’s very disappointing to see Discovery go down a road that VH1 and A&E so regularly traffic. It’s not as if they have limitations because they, supposedly, are a resource for scientific propagation. They’re allowed to use their imagination. They can make stuff up. Writers like Arthur C. Clark, Jules Verne, Phillip K. Dick, Gene Roddenberry, etc… did. Probably, those folks were more compelled to write with thoughtful speculation rather than poor, tabloid-esk fiction, so is it too much to ask Discovery to do the same? Well, since Wall Street and stockholders seem to be the new core audience, perhaps it is.

  12. I watched the whole show and was likewise screaming WTF at the screen the whole time. My wife had to calm me down and keep reminding me that I can’t actively debate people on pre-recorded television.
    The only comfort I got was when the after-show had the larger bald guy featured on the “documentary” as a panelist and the host asked the two panelists if they thought megalodon was possibly still alive and the guy said “No.” The guy who was featured in the show said “No.”
    The host seemed a little flustered, then cut to commercial, then came back and fist-bumped the guy who thought it was possible- but at least gave two minutes to the guy with an ounce of reason to explain why he felt the whole thing was bunk. His reasoning was impeccable- we see whale carcasses wash up all over the ocean and literally none show signs of being attacked by a large enough predator in the class of megalodon. The host then turns to the other guy who reminds us that oceans are big, therefor megalodon.
    I personally think megalodon is still alive and feeding on the carcasses of Ancient Aliens. It is totally plausible.

  13. I hate to say this, but most nature documentaries and such have faked (or staged) elements in it to make things more interesting to the viewers. I remember many, many years ago, I saw some documentary somewhere talking about snakes and following a certain snake on the hunt. It came upon a mouse, which never attempted to escape, then killed it in its coils before eating it. I remember thinking that this was very strange because the snake just casually slid up to the mouse and the mouse, despite being rubbed against by the snake, just continued to sit there. Eventually, the snake slowly coiled the mouse. It all seemed so unnatural and years later, I learned that it (and a number of other documentaries) had staged moments to add to the excitement.

    1. Many documentaries use staged moments to convey a point visually that was not captured naturally, and there’s arguments to be made. Mice will freeze up when conditions are utterly and terrifyingly hopeless – that mouse may have been near-comatose with fear, allowing the snake to eat it easily without human intervention. Then again, that mouse may have been drugged so that the footage would turn out as desired, which makes the events filmed quite unnatural.
      However, that’s not the type of case we’re talking about – you’re talking about a real mouse, and it was eaten by real snake, and even if the event was not authentic, it was based on real facts – snakes really do eat mice in the wild.
      Megalodons have never and will never attack humans or human vessels, and to say otherwise is to flat out lie to your audience. There’s no arguments to be had here, Discovery crossed the line.

  14. Wil, you should totally host a science documentary of your own, like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Cosmos. Seriously. I would watch the heck out of that. Fund it on Kickstarter if need be. Make it happen!

  15. I agree with 99.9999% of everything said. I remember a time when “real” tv was only from PBS. I do however have to say one thing. We attack Discovery, and that includes myself. However; we are missing the main focus of where the issue comes from. I feel that society in a whole is to blame. The world has become numb to many facts, that the only way these companies can keep people interested is to “make stuff up”. With a world watching all these CG based action, horror, and paranormal movies it is easy to see where things are going. To quote one of those movies that was based off an awesome book series, “The world is changing.” Think of this; anything is possible. If a 40 year old great white can get to 20 feet long, how big could a 50, 60, or even 70 year old white could get? We don’t know how long they really do live for. An open mind is important. Ok, my rant is over.

  16. Did he also get confused about the “doc” on Mermaids? Or how about the one on Dragons? Of course it was a mockumentary and he knew it. He is such a fraud, “I switched to Breaking Bad on Netflix” Ugh, pretentious 1st Team All-Jackass

  17. Heyas Wil- I am so glad that you posted this. I cannot express to you how disappointed I was when I tuned in to watch this show. I am not sure what I was expecting, beyond seeing maybe a mocumentary backed up by actual scientific facts… definitely not the sheer volume of fiction being presented as fact; it was staggering. I kept looking for the dramatization disclaimer; it never came.
    There were so many parts that I found to be absolutely incredulous, from the “full size” humpback whale lure (made a week after the boat attack… later changed to 18 days), to the overblown chum cannons and very obviously fake red water… the actors passed off as real scientists, the ship getting hit and the pyrotechnics in the water…. – it was like I was in an episode of MST3000. It was horrible.

  18. I completely agree. They did a show about mermaids too. They did the same thing, tried to present it as fact. When it was all BS. Stuff like that definitely belongs on the SyFy channel, or at least with a disclaimer from Discovery Channel at the beginning that says, “This is a work of fiction!”

  19. You know, I completely agree with you. Discovery absolutely should apologize for passing this off as a real documentary. Is it possible that Megalodon still exists? Yes, given that we’ve only explored a small fraction of the ocean. Is it probable? That is a big no. As much as I’ve always adored Shark Week and even though I’ve yet to be able to watch any of the programs (DVR is a wonderful thing), I am deeply disappointed in Discovery. Shark Week should be educational, not utter crap like what I see most other networks airing.

  20. I hope you all watch tonight’s episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, current;y hosted by John Oliver, and John Oliver mentions this controversy, in TDS’ standard humourous way.

  21. This is why there should be a PBS and NPR as they originally existed. No commercials, no ratings chase and no political nor corporate interference; just people interested in educating the populace and putting on good tv with no pressure to kowtow to anyone for any reason. And this is why all such tv cable channels as Discovery are doomed to failure in the long run; they will all end up caving to one of the pressures listed above. If we can get back to the early days of PBS/NPR/CPB, we can have that again on tv and for radio but we must go back to strong funding of them with no commercial involvement at all and no interference from politicians, rich individuals (Koch) and corporations.

    This is what we need and deserve again.

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