An extinct shark took only two hours to ravage Shark Week, destroying what the Discovery Channel built over 25 years and tearing apart people’s already tenuous understanding of marine life. It also ate through one of the last barriers between facts and make-believe in our culture, and made it even more difficult for people to know who to trust and what is true.
By airing fake documentaries in 2013 and 2014, including two that pretended extinct shark Megalodon was still alive, a trusted institution traded its reputation for ratings, using the brand to perpetuate a fraud, and damaged both its reputation and its audience’s knowledge.
Shark Week is, yes, entertainment, but it has historically been entertainment built on fact. The Discovery Channel’s decision to unapologetically deceive viewers during its annual festival of information, awareness, and conservation did real damage — beyond the damage to its reputation. It actually made scientists’ job of communicating to the public more challenging. An organization of teachers, scientists, and conservationists that educates students about sharks tweeted one example:
The network’s new leadership told me era of fake documentaries is over, and that there will be no more fiction masquerading as fact on Shark Week. That is excellent news.
But this is not just a Discovery Channel problem. The walls surrounding facts and truth in our culture have been slowly eroded, and we are now in an era where facts can be as artificial, malleable, and breakable as Silly Putty.
Fear of bias and lack of trust led viewers to turn to niche outlets for information that, ironically, was even more untrustworthy. Now we live in a world where Fox News and MSNBC viewers are so misinformed about international events they are less knowledgeable than people who don’t even watch news.
Meanwhile, inexpensive documentary-style unscripted programming such as MTV’s The Real World gave way to staged shows such as A&E’s Duck Dynasty and Food Network’s Restaurant Stakeout. Shows produced with a heavy hand are more predictable and manageable than reality; it’s easier and cheaper to stage a scene and tell non-actors what to say than it is to let cameras roll and hope something happens.
Such shows are still marketed and sold as factual entertainment, because the promise of real-life consequence draws viewers in a way that badly acted fiction does not.
Fiction as reality
I’ve now spent more than 15 years of my life as a journalist and critic focusing, in large part, on reality television, advocating for what drew me to the genre in the first place: reality. As futile as it may seem, a handful of shows consistently prove that it is possible to produce entertainment and art that is true to reality.
Yet, in search of ratings in an increasingly competitive industry (one that has been thoroughly shattered by new devices and streams of content), entertainment television crossed over into its protected land — news, documentary film, nature programming — and started hacking away. Eventually that led to a world where the producers of Duck Dynasty were deceiving scientists and credibility to produce fictional shows for the Discovery Channel.
Now that viewers have learned to mistrust Shark Week, is it too late? One of the few remaining reliable sources of information and knowledge was polluted, the run-off causing more damage. If you can’t trust what real scientists are saying in a Discovery channel documentary, what can you trust? What hope do documentarians, journalists, and educators have to convince the world that they’re telling the truth?
As Discovery airs 19 hours of prime-time Shark Week programs this week, maybe it can help, swinging the truth-wrecking ball far away from science and documentary television.