For those who've only tuned in to Discovery Channel's Shark Week in the years since Tracy Morgan mentioned it on 30 Rock, the idea that the summertime weeklong special could be anything but cheesy bombastic pap, an occasionally nonfiction version of Sharknado, seems crazy. But last week, the new president of the Discovery Channel, Rich Ross, promised to tamp down the pseudoscience.
The debate over the science of Shark Week reached a fever point last summer, when Discovery Channel aired fictional documentaries about mythical beasts that were presented as factual scientific investigations. To counter that backlash, Ross took to a TV industry event to say that the mermaid programming (that was a real thing!) won't be around under his tenure.
Critics, according to Deadline, were thrilled. Scientists aren't so optimistic; David Shiffman, a shark expert and prominent presence within both Animal Twitter and Science Twitter, quickly published a post entitled "An open letter to new Discovery Channel President Rich Ross from a shark scientist."
Ross says this type of programming isn't happening anymore.
Shiffman is probably the most popular, visible shark researcher on Twitter. (Pacific Standard has a great profile, if you're interested.) He tweets dozens, sometimes hundreds, of times per day, mostly about sharks, to over 20,000 followers. A graduate student at the University of Miami, he's a frequent blogger on the science site Southern Fried Science, and, partly by virtue of being the only shark blogger most people have ever heard of, is one of the most vocal critics of Shark Week. But it's not because he hates Shark Week: it's because he loves it.
"I have actually watched every Shark Week," he said. "It's been on for 25 or 26 years [ed. note: Shark Week first aired in 1988] and I've been watching it since I was a little toddler. Growing up in Pittsburgh it was a big part of how I became interested in the ocean."
Back then, Shiffman said , Shark Week consisted of much more scientifically respectable programming. He recalls the first iteration of the "Air Jaws" series, in which the phenomenon of sharks leaping out of the water was publicized.
"At the time that behavior wasn't really widely known, and Shark Week did a good service in popularizing it, saying 'look at this really cool behavior,'" he said.
But in the past five years or so, Shark Week has become a lightning rod for criticism from the scientific community. Last year, Discovery Channel aired one "documentary" that attempted to prove mermaids are real, and another that attempted to fool viewers into thinking Megalodon, a species of shark understood to be long extinct, still roams the seas.
Both specials included CGI and interviews with actors pretending to be scientists and witnesses. io9 discovered in interviews with some of the real scientists interviewed for the docs that they were lied to, their answers to unrelated questions edited to appear as if they were substantiating insane B-movie nonsense like the Louisiana "voodoo shark."
The scientific evidence here is flimsy to say the least.
Shiffman also strongly objected to "Zombie Sharks," a special in which Eli Martinez, whom Shiffman classifies as a "scuba industry person" and a "known animal harasser," demonstrates tonic immobility, a well-known phenomenon in which a shark, when turned upside down, becomes docile and is unable to move.
"Sharks need to keep swiming in order to breathe," said Shiffman, "so if you're just temporarily making them pass out for fun, it can be harmful for them."
Last year's Shark Week was the most-watched in Shark Week's history, with about 29 million viewers, who didn't much seem to care about the controversies.
Last week, Ross stated, in vague, mild terms, that Discovery Channel would be backing down from these types of non-fact-based specials. "I don't think it's right for Discovery Channel, and think it's something that has run its course. They've done very well… but I don't think it's something that's right for us," he said. That's not enough for Shiffman.
"I would like to see less focus on fearmongering nonsense, I would like to see less of them just making up nonsense for no reason, I would like to see less wildlife harassment, and I'd like to see more focus on the science and on the animals and on the amazing people who study them and try to protect them," he said.
The entire premise of a segment like this is that sharks are terrifying, which isn't helpful to anyone.
Fearmongering is a major problem for a shark scientist with an eye to conservation, and Shark Week may now be the single biggest obstacle, even more than Jaws, to forcing the public to understand how important and non-scary sharks are.
The vast majority of Shark Week specials lean on the popular image of sharks as terrifying man-eaters, despite the relative rarity of shark attacks. But you are more likely to be killed by a dog, an alligator, and lightning than you are by a shark; New Yorkers are about ten times more likely to be bitten by another person than by a shark. Meanwhile, declines in shark populations worldwide go under-reported, despite the concerning knock-on effects that shark declines can have.
Shiffman is eager to make sure he's not taken as a blind critic, praising last year's "Alien Sharks," which focused on rare and little-known sharks (real ones, not extinct ones). And his calls for change are uniformly reasonable from a scientific point of view.
From a television programming point of view, though, it's a hard sell. Shiffman names "Planet Earth" as an example of popular yet scientifically respectable nature programming. But "Planet Earth" was at the time of its creation the most expensive nature documentary of all time, taking five years and $25 million to create. It was born from the BBC's Natural History Unit, a source of national pride with the benefit of taxpayer funding. There is no precedent for that sort of thing in American television; neither PBS's Nature series nor National Geographic has the budget for a project of that scope.
But just because Discovery isn't able to spend millions of dollars and several years on one special, Shark Week is still the channel's calling card, its most visible and successful series. In that light, Ross's comments were milquetoast in the extreme.
"It's very important to us, and to me, that when people are telling stories and they're delivering information that it is true and can be entertaining as well, which is mandatory," he said. Later, when speaking about a show in which a man attempted to be eaten by a snake: "I don't believe you'll see a person being eaten by a snake in my time. I can't over-promise that, but that's how I feel today." There are about four separate areas for wiggle room in that statement.
Ross's speech is a public relations move to appease critics by promising to dial back on the SyFy-channel stuff, not an earnest pronouncement of new ethics. Discovery may not show a documentary about mermaids again, but neither is it going to be the home of the next Attenborough.