Shark Week 2015: My Faith in the Discovery Channel is Revived

Guest blog by Chris Palmer, EFF Advisory Council Member and author of the book Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker.

Like many others in the wildlife filmmaking community, I have been highly critical of the Discovery Channel for their shameful record of commissioning programs for Shark Week that damage conservation, science, education, and, most egregiously, sharks themselves.

But this year I want to commend Discovery. Instead of fakery, fearmongering, and animal harassment, there was more science and conservation. While there is still room for improvement (more on that below), I want to commend Rich Ross, the new president of the Discovery Channel, and Howard Swartz, the new head of development and production, for their work towards turning things around.

In my recent book, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings Are King, I argued that broadcasters like Discovery should, at the very minimum, do no harm. But their real calling should be moral leadership in keeping with the noble and inspiring values of their founders—visionaries like John Hendricks.

Rich Ross and Howard Swartz have done exactly that with this year’s Shark Week—shown moral leadership. I, like many other critics, am delighted. Eight things in particular pleased me:

  • First, there were no fake documentaries about phony, massive Megalodons roaming menacingly in the oceans, and no actors pretending to be scientists (like the infamous “Colin Drake.”) That was a huge relief. Also there were no mentions of fictitious mega-sized sharks with names like “Hitler” and “Submarine,” although the program Super Predator came a little too close to the line for my liking.
  • Second, there was far less sensational fearmongering and depicting sharks as monsters with the sole purpose of attacking people.
  • Third, Discovery featured top scientists like Greg Skomal from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and Greg Stone from Conservation International who did a good job of conveying exciting scientific findings in a colorful and engaging way. Skomal and Stone’s films (Shark Trek and Alien Sharks respectively) were outstanding.
  • Fourth, Discovery included a lot of solid and fascinating science, especially in Ninja Sharks, Shark Planet, Monster Mako, and Shark Clans.
  • Fifth, Shark Week this year made an effort to show more than just great whites. There are over 500 shark species, but that biodiversity has been largely absent in previous Shark Weeks. Let’s hope Shark Week 2016 will show even more shark species. They are all fascinating.
  • Sixth, Shark After Dark, hosted capably by horror film director Eli Roth, was a cut above the vapid and inane chatter we’ve been offered in previous years. Roth emphasized shark conservation and did so in an entertaining way.
  • Seventh, the BBC’s Mike Gunton produced a film for Shark Week called Shark Planet which was excellent. Discovery deserves praise for broadcasting this blue chip gem.
  • Eighth, Jason Robey, executive interactive producer for Discovery.com, and his skilled team, produced some valuable and informative materials as part of Shark Week’s digital/social platforms, including Sharkopedia, Shark Finbassadors, and Shark Feed

Here are some ways for Discovery to make Shark Week next year in 2016 even better than this year:

  • Show a greater variety of shark species, not just great whites. Shark biologist Dr. Mikki McComb-Kobza from the Ocean First Institute told me, “Shark Week is so white shark oriented and it drives me crazy. We have 500 other species to talk about!”
  • Invite the marine biologist David Shiffman to be a regular guest on Shark After Dark. Shiffman has been one of Shark Week’s most articulate and astute critics and for Discovery to invite him to appear on the network commenting on Shark Week’s programs would show real moral leadership.
  • Include fewer fake, dramatic stories about underwater cinematographers appearing to be in danger from sharks. The manipulation of viewers’ fears is blatant and tiresome.
  • Feature more female and minority shark scientists. Roughly half the shark scientists in the world are women, but watching Shark Week, a viewer would get the impression the figure was closer to 5 percent.

The ratings for Shark Week this summer were excellent, but if Discovery didn’t get the stratospheric ratings it yearned for, one reason is that potential viewers have been turned off by the fakery and other failings in previous Shark Weeks. People mistrust Discovery and it will take time to rebuild trust. A top underwater cinematographer told me last week, “I couldn’t comment on any of the Shark Week shows this year as I wasn’t interested enough to watch them. I’m so disappointed in the programs in past years that I just avoid watching any of them now.”

Rich Ross, Howard Swartz, and other leaders at Discovery promised publicly to improve Shark Week by including less pseudoscience, less harassment, and less fakery. They kept their promise and I warmly applaud them for that show of integrity. I encourage them to continue on this path and make Shark Week next year even more science and conservation based.

Chris Palmer is a Distinguished Film Producer in Residence at American University’s School of Communication, where he founded and currently directs the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. Chris is also president of the One World One Ocean Foundation, a multimillion-dollar global media campaign to save the oceans. He is the author of the books Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker and Shooting in the Wild. This article is reprinted with permission from the Natural History Network.

 

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