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 recently sat down with my kids when they were watching one on Mermaids. My 10 year old was a bit freaked out and I had to explain that it was all fake. Okay, maybe at 10 she should’ve realized it, but 10 is pretty young and when you see things on a channel like that you’re expecting real science not some made up bullshit.

      1. I have to say that the mermaid one for me too and I was 23 at the time. It’s specifically because I trust Discovery that I even gave it a chance. Frankly when I realized it was fake, I felt betrayed. The last bastion of good, intelligent, educational television had fallen.

    2. Not to mention the mermaid “documentary” that I’ve had to point out to people on more than one occasion is fake. I dunno if Discovery’s aired that, but Animal Planet has.

    3. I can’t help but be reminded of the mid-90’s re-imagining of “The Learning Channel” and its’ subsequent evolution into today’s crap-fest of “Cake Boss”, “Toddlers & Tiaras”, “Say Yes to the Dress” and all the rest. It’s a slippery slope, Discovery Communications.

  1. I’m with ya on this one Wil. I Was stoked to start Shark Week and made it through about 15 minutes before I turned to my wife and said this is bullshit. A fake piece of crap passed off as real. hopefully the res tof shark week is better than that piece of junk start.

  2. I totally agree with you 100%. Passing that joke off as fact was a huge no-no and has me wondering what other things I have watched on the Discovery Channel that they were passing off as ‘real’. So disappointed.

  3. Discovery and Animal Planet have faked so many programs and spread so much misinformation that it is harming education. Call of the Wildman show got caught placing venomous snakes in a public swimming pool in Danville , Kentucky to stage reckless handling and capture by the Turtlemoron Ernie Brown Jr ( a toothless stereotype who signed a contract stating he would not fix his teeth until the show was no longer airing). Animal Planet / Discovery Channel surprisingly stupid not human.

  4. I’m a Marine Biologist and I was simply appalled. I had to keep flipping back to see if there were any redeeming qualities, and there weren’t. Beyond the blatant pieces of fiction (pretty much everything), there were exaggerations of the real aspects of what is known about Megalodon, and even a howler of a logic gap.

    At one point the show brings up the theory that because whales changed their migration patterns to avoid Megalodon, that Megalodon WENT EXTINCT (of course it did, but the reason I bolded will become clear in a moment).

    Then they say that because of changing climate, whales are changing their climate patterns back to what they were before and because of this, Megalodon is coming back.

    REALLY? So epic fails in truthfulness, scientific credibility, facts, terminology understanding AND basic logic. Yup, Discovery Channel has been removed from my TV’s network listing.

  5. Well said. I found no interest in watching, just from the title. First thought I had… “Oh boy another Mermaids are real special.”. How could Discovery have sunk to the point of turning a week long (and I say this with nothing but respect for my fellow members) “Geekfest” of all that is shark. I expect documentaries, awesome new HD shots of sharks, and even replays of old shows. They might as well have gotten the rights to air Jaws or Sharknado if they were going to show something fictional. As with the Mermaids scam, throwing some actual science into it does not make it Scientific or Educational.

  6. As a scientist, I am enraged by fictional media that poses as fact. They could have done the same exact show with disclaimers at the very least, or, I don’t know, actually explored the fascinating REAL scientific facts!

  7. Sigh. If only this was something new. In truth, it’s easily been 4 or 5 years since Discovery was actually about “Discovery”. It’s basically a reality channel with the occasional docudrama throw in for variation.

  8. discovery has lots of “reality” tv also. with shows like “amish mafia” airing, i feel like it’s only a matter of time before nearly all factual content has been removed from their programs. it’s sad but i think the history channel broke my heart first.

  9. Mr. Wheaton, you are in the unique position of being able to actually do something to help sharks. You could use your celebrity to help them. A young sandbar shark was murdered a few weeks ago by lifeguards while a crowd of onlookers watched. Had it been a puppy or kitten, there would be outrage and charges brought. Instead, no one cares. A shark is killed for its fins every 3 seconds…..every 3 seconds. Want to learn more about sharks. Visit sharks.org
    I do thank you, Mr, Wheaton, for bringing attention to this matter.

    -Chris Romo ( A lady whose daughter taught her to respect, not fear, sharks)

  10. Will, it took me 45 minutes (I’m terrified on sharks, so I kept switching over to cartoon network… so… maybe that’s why); and only when I saw the “whale on the beach” footage that was so very tidy and weirdly lit that I realized it was fakeity-fake-fake. I looked up the “Famed Marine Biologist” online and, surprise, only entries were on Discovery-linked pages.
    I kept waiting for them to come back from commercials with a disclaimer, but no dice. Between the faux-documentaries on Discovery, the haunted pets on Animal Planet, and the UFO-slash-crypto hunters on ‘SyFy,’ I guess it’s straight up PBS for anything science-y anymore.
    Thanks for writing a column that is a well-written rebuttal of their major error.

  11. My husband had recorded this last night for our boys to watch in the morning (he assumed it was legit) . My 8 and 5 year old watched it this morning and thought it was all real-they started telling me about photos from German u boats and interviews with people – by the time I figured out what was up I had a heck of a time explaining it was a fake documentary. I was not a happy mom. Now an argument could be made that we should have watched it ahead of time, but we made the (erroneous) assumption that because it was on discovery channel during shark week that it would be an actual documentary.

  12. I missed the first 15 minutes, so I didn’t see the found footage initially. I thought what they kept showing was a reenactment. The “footage” of megalodon threw my brain for a loop. My right brain said “Gee, that looks kinda fake”, but my left brain said “Poppycock! Discovery is a noble, forthright establishment!”. I called the hubby to the TV to replay the Brazil coast guard footage. After proclaiming WTF WAS THAT?! and scoffing at my insistence that it was a megalodon, he looked it up and found the phrase MOCKUMENTARY.

    Shame on you, Discovery.

  13. Tonight, as a family we happened to finish our dinner, and sit down to watch one show before our kids went to bed. It turns out they re-ran this show . Well, I’m guessing so, as what I saw wasn’t “real” in any sense of the Discovery shows we’re typically used to watching as a family.

    Right up at the end where the cinematic footage and ‘climax’ of the story shown here happens, there was an extraordinarily huge amount of very staged shots, or what seemed like it to me anyway. Some of this seemed somewhat ‘real’ in that they were talking about the tags and tracking the great whites, things our kids love to see and learn about. Then, they unveil this whole “chum gun” – and talk about how much easier it is to disperse chum, yet they have to hand load it anyway? And what was with the 3-2-1 countdown all the time? And the captain, he just grinned constantly while on camera. Ugh.

    I am sure someone has done it, but I’d love to see some of the screen-caps of the ending portion of the disclaimer to read what the final ending super-fast-ending-three-frame-texed-disclaimer says there, in the last minute of the movie, er “show”. Surely it is a note saying “yeah, sorry, but we really are running out of actual shark footage, sorry again.”

    Ugh. I know as far as ‘entertainment’ for my two kids, it worked. But even they understood how bad it was, mostly because mom and dad talked about how ‘this can’t be real’ the whole time….

  14. Just image how difficult it is for us teachers. Not a week goes by when I don’t have a student bring up something they saw on the History Channel about ancient aliens. History and science are way more interesting than networks (and people) give them credit for. They don’t have to make crap up to entertain us.

  15. When we first saw the video footage of the boat sinking I was thinking to myself, OMG, how can this be real??? I’m never going on a boat again! I was really upset about it today when I found out it was a hoax! I was so mad tonight that I created some t-shirts on skeened dot com to protest. “Mega Hoax” and “Mega Fake” LOL That will fix them.

  16. Great. Now Discovery is going the way of TLC. How the hell “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” ever ended up on something that dared to call itself The Learning Channel is an affront to reason and intellect everywhere. For shame, Discovery.

    I just don’t get tv anymore. Mtv doesn’t play music. Cartoon Network has live action shows w/no animation. TLC as mentioned above, is a joke. And now Discovery? What’s next, WWE on PBS?!? o.O SMH

    1. Why not? Somehow the WWE wound up on the SyFy Channel. BTW,Wil…do you still have any ins at that channel from your Eureka days? I want to pitch a reality show where Wrestlers wrestle ghosts with the aid of real-life supernatural objects they picked up in pawn shops. I’ll split the money with you 70-30(I get 70,you get 30)

  17. On Wednesday July 31 The Science Channel, which is owned by Discovery, did an episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through The Wormhole called “Did God Create Evolution?” Even with that title, I wasn’t expecting to see Michael Behe talking about Intelligent Design and his bogus theory of irreducible complexity. I wrote a post about it with links to the segment and to Discovery Channel’s comment page here- http://caorann.dreamwidth.org/19780.html. I’m really disappointed in them.

  18. “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.” …and fired as far as I’m concerned.

    I work in the business of television – I can put up with the occasional sensational programming, but outright lying to your audience – there’s no gray line, it’s just plain wrong. I agree with your analysis completely Wil.

  19. I don’t know. Maybe I’m too young (I’m 32), but for the last 10 years I saw NG as something very sensationalist. I mean, even its magazine has beem more focused on beautiful, huge pictures, than the articles. Antd the NG channel (at least the version I get in Eastern Europe) didn’t look exceptional compared to all the other dokumentary channels. For me the whole NG thing always seemed somehow everhyped, but I had no proof that this or that is fake in its programming or in the articles of the magazines, so I didn’t really care about it. That’s just what I felt as a media consumer. It never really looked more trustworthy to me than any oher documentary channel.

  20. Sharks are one of the most wonderful creatures on the planet and have a really tough time going through all the poaching and death due to the frenzy against them already created by movies like Jaws and Deep Blue Sea.. Discovery’s Shark Week is by far the most important step towards increasing the awareness about sharks. The Megalodon crap is nothing but hoaxes in today’s times. Such pieces should not be shown by a responsible network. We bet you can do better #Discovery Network!!!

  21. I don’t know if it’s just me putting on my rose-colored nostalgia glasses but Discovery Channel was so much better when I was a teenager/in my early 20s, back in the ’90s and early 2000s. I don’t watch Shark Week though (even though sharks are awesome) so I didn’t see this show. Almost typed “documentary” then I realised it wasn’t really one. :p Nowadays pretty much the only thing I watch on Discovery is Mythbusters.

  22. Shark Week makes shark lovers angry (I have spent years photographing sharks, underwater). I stopped watching it many years ago because the majority of the content is sensationalist crap.

  23. I’m a grown (26) and wanted to cry.. I look forward every year to this week..and as immature as I am with my friends with crude humor.. I don’t seek it on of all channels ..the discovery channel.. my nephew for the first time watched with me and I had slot to explain thanks to the awefull aftershocks..something needs to be done I’m just bummed beyond belief right now. Love your article .glad I’m not alone

  24. Bah… this is a symptom of a bigger problem.

    I think that as more people get access to broadband internet and the new media sources such as Netflix, Vimeo, and YouTube, executives in network and cable channel war rooms feel so panicked that they feel they must try evermore sensational programming just to keep their viewership numbers even close to par with numbers from the recent past. Television as we have come to know it is dwindling, albeit slowly, and they know it. I bet if you did a case by case comparison of today’s programming with programming from programming from 10 years ago, I think the case would be clear that many things on television have changed away from the informational and towards the plausibly marketable. Why? Because viewership is also down 50% from 10 years ago (Source: Yahoo Business Insider ‘BRUTAL: 50% Decline In TV Viewership Shows Why Your Cable Bill Is So High’, By Jim Edwards – Thu, Jan 31, 2013 11:08 AM EST; I’d link to it but I don’t want to be labeled as spam). And it’s only going to get worse for these companies, although I’m not certain that cable/network channels will ever completely go away. They don’t have the luxury to apologize – they’re just trying to survive. Their cable bubble is about to burst.

  25. I was so excited for the start of Shark Week… emphasis on the “was.”

    Maybe it’s a sign of naivete, but I don’t understand why channels that once started out with the goal to provide actual, factual, informational television have devolved the way they have. Science is just fascinating, I don’t see why Discovery had to mock it up…

    It’s not like Shark Week wasn’t already guaranteed to be a hit for them, it’s their biggest week of the year, and then to air that Megalodon farce? Severely disappointed… and while I hope someone from the network will apologize for it, I just don’t see that happening. Sad.

  26. I remember when the History Channel started airing the Heston version of PLANET OF THE APES. At first I was so,so confused…had the cable company switched the channels around? Sadly not. Now that kind of thing is par for the course. VH1 and MTV dont show videos. The History Channel,Discovery Channel,NatGeo channel have all been taken over by shows about Aliens and “reality” shows about Off-Road Trucking Alaskan Housewives who Pawn Storage Facilities. And those of us who DO care about science and nature and history are just shit out of luck. Because stupid sells.

  27. The Megalodon piece was a “What If” feature in the tradition of “Mermaids: The Body Found” and “Dragons” (Animal Planet), all of which gave ample clues that they were not actual documentaries. I personally love these features. They tickle that part of my imagination that wishes it was true, and is willing to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the possibility. The more believable the science is, the more fun these are. As for those who found all this deceptive, if the flash-blurbs that came up before the credits left any question, the live show immediately following Megalodon would have erased it when one of the actors flat out said they were extinct. Myself, I’m waiting for a Yeti one. Yetis are cool.

    1. But it wasn’t played off as a “What if”. If they had done that, “What if Megalodon was around today?” and actually based it in real science. Like “This is what it would do to a fishing boat….” or “Whales would have a battle”, or what would happen if an orca and megalodon met in a steel cage….

      But they didn’t, they did a “Blair Witch – Megalodon edition”.

  28. I agree, it’s bad, but it’s becoming common for TV to take a “real” story and do a dramatic reenactment. Real just meaning someone said it, lol. So you’ll often see professional camera work for stories like a family caught by a tidal wave on a boat. Was there a real camera and cameraman there at the time? No. Can the TV networks make a lot more money by throwing in filmed reenactment between dramatic interview scenes? Heck yeah!

  29. After the documentary mess that was Mermaids (I can’t believe reputable sources like Animal Planet and Discovery had the lunacy to air it), I’ve given up on these ‘found footage’ dramas. But I liked the old Shark Week episodes.

  30. you guys still watch Discovery channel??? I haven’t for the last 10 years.

    Go buy BBC documentary box sets instead. The Human Planet, Africa, Natural world, etc etc.

  31. This has actually been coming on for years. I’ve watched Shark Week from the very beginning and always LOVED it. But… These last several years… The educational part of the programming that I used to love about Shark Week has been slowly disappearing, only to be replaced by more and more sensationalist crap. I’ve even complained to them, but all they let you do is fill out a form, and the only replies you get are a form “thanks for your input”. Apparently they think that people want to see lots of blood and gore. That people want to be scared of monsters. And so, for maybe the last 6 years or more, a lot of their programs have been leaning that direction. Education has been slipping away little by little ever since that trend began. Most of their shows now deal with shark attacks, if you’ve noticed. The year before last seemed like nothing but. I haven’t gotten to sit down with Megalodon yet. I was planning to try it today. Sounds like I shouldn’t bother at all. And that pisses me off. Thanks for the warning. I’m off to try to complain to the stupid Discovery website. Again. Maybe if enough of us protest, they might actually do something to fix the problems?

  32. This is what happens when the likes of SharkNado get such high ratings…Discovery Channel throws out any and all integrity in an effort to capitalize on the media hype generated by the B-Movie schlock!! Why would they feel the need to open a normally entertaining and informative series, that has been long running, with fiction? It’s such a shame, especially when there are so many interesting facts about sharks and such fantastic REAL footage out there, especially in the constantly evolving knowledge we have of the Great White?

    Fair play Mr Wheaton for your written outrage!!
    Yours,
    a Viewer
    Dublin Ireland.

  33. This is only the first step in an eventual spiral downward to become the next “THE LEARNING CHANNEL”.
    Next year there will be a show on obese southern sharks and their wacky pageant antics!

  34. Wil, while I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying, the sad truth is that Discovery has been slipping for a while now – unless you believe Bigfoot is real?
    Used to be, I almost exclusively watched DC on TV, but those days are long gone – nowadays, I watch it mainly for shows like Mythbusters, How It’s Made, etc. – the more technical programs they run. All the other stuff is pretty much all reality show crap, even if on the whole it is more palatable then the likes of Jersey Shore or what have you…

  35. Thank you, Mr. Wheaton for capturing the sentiment that most of your readers, including me, are clearly feeling, as indicated by the comments to your article. I fear Discovery may be going the way of TLC, which used to be The Learning Channel, but now, could more accurately be described as The Lobotomy Channel.

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