Sharks are really, really cool. They’ve been
around about 400 million years. There’s over 400 species of them, and they even have the
ability to detect electromagnetic fields in the water. All of which is why it’s so baffling
that Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has so little biology in it. Recently, it’s become
more like a reality tv show than a series of nature documentaries. And in the past two
years, it’s veered into really weird territory, with Discovery Channel actually deceiving
viewers about sharks. It wasn’t always like this. Back in 1988 when it started, by all
accounts the shows were great and educational. But slowly it’s become more and more sensational.
In the last few years, most of its shows have been about Great Whites attacking humans.
Surely there’s something thrilling about that. But there’s something backwards about it too.
Shark attacks are really rare. And in truth, we’re a bigger threat to sharks than they
are to us. These shows about shark attacks are great for making people scared of sharks.
They don’t do much for making people care about them. Now if Shark Week was just sensationalized,
that might be disappointing but tolerable. But last year, Discovery Channel entered new
territory, completely making up a story. They aired a documentary with a scientist who told
us that there was a 100-foot shark called Megalodon roaming the oceans, and it killed
4 people off the coast of South Africa last year. “Zoom in. Once more. And to the right.
I know it’s kind of blurry but look at that. Look at that. That’s a fin!” But here’s the thing. The scientist
was an actor, the footage was faked, and the deaths didn’t even happen. Viewers had no
way of knowing this. There was just a disclaimer saying that the scenes were dramatized. All
shark researchers agree that megalodon went extinct 2 million years ago, but an online
poll afterwards showed that 73% of viewers thought it was real. This was the highest
rated episode in Shark Week history, which is probably why Discovery is doubling down
with fake shark programming this year. First, in a promo, they hoaxed viewers by claiming
there was a shark in Lake Ontario, which they had to admit was fake after Canadian officials
believed it and started getting worried. Then they kicked things off with a new fake documentary,
Shark of Darkness, about a non-existant 35-foot white shark. “What made this incident particularly
horrifying was that the attacks were captured on camera.” Featuring another fake scientist
from a fake research institute, blaming a fake shark for a death that didn’t happen.
Finally, they’re following up with a megalodon sequel that claims to have new evidence. The
worst part about all of this? Discovery viewers have a real appetite for actual science. When
the channel debuted BBC’s series, Life, it got over 11 million viewers, more than twice
as many as megalodon. Discovery calls itself the world’s #1 nonfiction media company. But
it’s apparently decided that the natural world isn’t interesting enough for TV.