Just when you thought it was safe to turn the TV back on, Discovery Channel announced that Shark Week premieres July 5. This extravaganza started innocently enough in 1987, showing primarily shark-themed documentaries. But since then, Shark Week has evolved from a harmless programming block to a violent, lurking predator that devours attention spans and is responsible for some of Discovery’s highest ratings. In fact, it’s become so beloved that Nat Geo Wild channel—Discovery’s primary competitor—will be airing a SharkFest programming block that also starts on July 5.
Which might be great! After all, sharks are beautiful predators, and the jumping Great White scenes are pretty much the best part of Planet Earth. But Shark Week’s problem hasn’t been showing sharks in general, but what it chooses to show in particular. For years, Discovery has been airing more and more sensationalist Shark Week specials, though its nadir was in 2013. That year’s Shark Week kicked off with a special called Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, a “documentary” that purported to show evidence—bolstered by first-person accounts from scientists and witnesses—that a 50-foot-long, prehistoric dino-shark still swam among us. Though the monster shark very much does not live, you wouldn’t know it from tuning in: Only a small disclaimer that flashed on-screen for a few seconds (and that most viewers missed, if the social media freak-out that followed is any indication) revealed that Megalodon was fictitious. Outcry from the scientific community and some viewers’ calls to boycott fell on ears deaf to anything but ratings, and 2014’s programming didn’t make the Discovery Channel any new scientist friends either.
“Last year, there was a problematic show called Zombie Sharks, which was showcasing tonic immobility: when you flip a shark over and they pass out,” says David Shiffman, a marine biologist and vocal critic of Shark Week, who often fact-checks Discovery’s claims from his Twitter account, @WhySharksMatter. “Some scientists and aquarium vets use this to safely secure an animal, but it shouldn’t be done just for fun.… Humans that describe a severe trauma in which they could see everything happening around them but they couldn’t move? That’s tonic immobility.” It's precisely that kind of programming that poses a threat to the shark’s image, and to the animal's survival.
“Twenty-four percent of all sharks, skates and rays are listed as ‘threatened with extinction,’” says Shiffman. “It’s a lot harder to get people to care about saving something if they’re irrationally afraid of it and think that it should be extinct. And Shark Week has played no small role in this fearmongering.” Shiffman acknowledges that, of course, shark attacks are tragic, but “tens of millions of people, if not more, go swimming every year in the U.S. and we have an average of 50 bites and one fatality a year.” He adds that more people are killed annually by vending machines, cows or flowerpots falling on them. “Media coverage of an issue affects public opinion of it,” he says. “And the public opinion of sharks is overwhelmingly negative, which makes it harder to conserve threatened species.”
Shiffman says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that Shark Week will make a course correction: Discovery’s new president, Rich Ross, has promised to stop airing fake documentaries. But when the numbers indicate that the Megalodon follow-up pulled the strongest ratings of any show during Shark Week 2014, even cautious optimism might be too optimistic.