Shark Week is a week on the Discovery channel that sees a flurry of documentaries on sharks. As a person with a keen interest in sharks, you’d think I would be extremely excited about it. The truth is I get very scared, for a reason entirely different from why most people get scared during shark week. The documentaries from the last couple of years have been painting sharks in a not so flattering light. Many of the “documentaries” are simply dramatic re-enactments of violent shark attacks as told from the victims point of view. They may be accurate and I’m sure a shark accident would be a terrifying ordeal, but this is only part of the story.
There is much more to sharks than the rare and, admittedly, horrifying negative encounters people have with them. Even the non shark attack based shows seem to emphasize the teeth most of all. 2011’s line-up includes “Top Five Eaten Alive”, “Jaws Comes Home”, “Great White Invasion”, “Killer Sharks”, “10 Deadliest Sharks”. Where are the documentaries on the vastly more common positive encounters people have with sharks? Or the ones that talk about how important they are to our planet? Or about how they are being overfished (to put it lightly)? Past years’ documentaries (I have not seen this years’) would include people getting into the water with sharks, but even that is sold as “death defying” and as an extreme sport.
Two weeks ago I watched a 13 year old girl get in the open ocean with sharks and no cage, ones that will no doubt be listed in the “10 Deadliest Sharks” episode. Of course, sharks are still wild animals and precautions were taken, but it should shatter the idea that it is a macho, death defying stunt to swim with sharks.
So, why all the blood and scary music? The answer is simple – ratings. The goal is to get eyeballs and blood and carnage sell very well. Audiences want to be scared. Why do you think there are so many “Saw” and “Final Destination” movies?
I think the Discovery Channel is well aware they are only showing a small portion of the shark story, but believe it is necessary or else no one will watch. What is the point of showing a shark documentary about how gentle and smart sharks can be if no one will watch? It is better to sell them on the gore and slip in a small, subtle conservation message to make sure a lot of people see it. I get it, it makes sense, it is rational thinking. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help the sharks and it scares people out of the water.
I would argue that it is very possible to make interesting, dramatic television that doesn’t show sharks as blood thirsty man eaters. A great example of this is the Animal Planet series Whale Wars which follows conservation organization Sea Shepherd as they try to stop whaling in the southern ocean. The show has set ratings records for Animal Planet (which is actually owned by Discovery) and has made being a conservationist cool. Whales are seen as beautiful, necessary animals that need and deserve our protection. Whales used to have a bad reputation just like sharks, but the public view has changed. I believe this can happen with sharks as well and Shark Week has an excellent opportunity to contribute. Based on the titles, I think sharks will be even more feared after watching these shows than they were before.
Over the next couple of weeks Shark Week will, no doubt, take over the social networking world (it even got a very on-purpose mention in the Facebook movie The Social Network). I am really scared that what I will see are Facebook updates like “Watching Shark week – gonna leave the lights on tonight” and tweets like “I ain’t going swimming ever again!” as I did last shark week (where #SharkWeek was a worldwide trending topic on twitter).
I hope that someday Discovery Channel will take the Whale Wars lead and prove that interesting television can also support a cause and show people the wonderful, beautiful and fascinating side of these important creatures we call sharks.