A juvenile great white shark that was temporarily held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in December 2011.
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Photo by Brian Switek.
A juvenile great white shark that was temporarily held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in December 2011.

It Came From Basic Cable

On Sunday, Discovery kicked off Shark Week with a hoax. Not content to just play up sharks as serial killers in the annual extravaganza of blood, hokey reenactments, and menacing fins, the basic cable channel did their best at trying to fool viewers into believing that the 50 foot long, hypercarnivorous shark Carcharocles megalodonknown only from a fossil record that fizzles out in the 4-2 million year range – is still gobbling whales and prowling the modern seas. The stunt irritated viewers who quickly saw through the bad cgi and manufactured drama of the show, and the response was sharp enough that Michael Sorensen, executive producer of Shark Week, defended the show with a feeble bite back at critics.

Discovery built its reputation with science programming. Shark Week was always a high point. There was no part of the summer I looked forward to more. As a kid, I was hooked by shows that gave shark experts such as Eugenie Clark, John McCosker, and Samuel Gruber full attention as the researchers rhapsodized about the selachian subjects of their scientific fascination. I was so addicted that if I was going to be away from the VCR while Shark Week was on, I’d beg my friends to tape as many programs as they could stand so I could catch up on the shark marathon when I got home. But now Discovery is a joke, with the megalodon fiasco only being a confirmation of what has been clear for some time.

Frustrating as the program was, the megalodon fauxumentary didn’t come as a surprise. Discovery Communications had previously netted huge ratings with similar chicanery. Discovery didn’t “sink its credibility” with the prehistoric shark. The network family’s credibility was already long gone.

Last year, Animal Planet – a channel owned by Discovery Communications – spent a mind-numbing two hours trying to convince viewers that ichthyosapiens is real with the fictional Mermaids: The Body Found. Animal Planet doubled down this year with a reairing of the original and a noxious supplement titled Mermaids: The New Evidence. These shows carried only the barest of disclaimers that they were fiction rather than fact – I still get occasional emails and comments from those who believe mermaids are among us – and the shows broke audience records. Animal Planet representative Marjorie Kaplan said she and her associates are “thinking big” about how to follow the success. Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives follows in the wake of Mermaids and may be a look at the future of “science” television. That is, if reality show nonsense doesn’t totally overwhelm formerly non-fiction channels first.

But documentary deceitfulness runs deeper than outright hoaxes, and is really nothing new. Most infamously, the creators of the 1958 Disney nature film White Wilderness used a turntable to launch lemmings off a cliff to make the rodents appear as if they were committing mass suicide. The program won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature. Nor are fraud and sleight of hand issues of the past.

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A wolverine at the Kristiansand Zoo, Norway. Despite no authenticated case of a wolverine killing a human, the carnivore is presented as a bloodthirsty monster in ‘Yukon Men.’ Photo by Birgit Fostervold, distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Seeing is believing. That shouldn’t be. As passive viewers, we’re quite easy to fool, and different sorts of tricks are regularly used to present a facsimile of nature rather than a reality. In his book Shooting the Wild, for example, documentarian Chris Palmer explains that filmmakers Carol and Richard Foster capture animals which they then film on carefully-constructed sets. To film vampire bats lapping human blood, Palmer recounts, the Fosters created an artificial cave for the bats and a mock-up camp nearby where a volunteer pretended to be asleep while the bats scurried over him and eventually tucked in for a liquid lunch. (Wisely, the actor had been given a rabies vaccine beforehand.) Palmer notes that the Fosters are honest about such methods, but the networks who show their programs may or may not make such artificial setups clear to viewers.

The techniques of Wild America host Marty Stouffer were not so transparent. In 1996, after a damning article in the Denver Post that charged Stouffer’s “wild” vignettes were really filmed in enclosures and sometimes used captive animals, the network PBS ran an investigation on the show. The investigation, Palmer notes in Shooting the Wild, found that “a significant percentage” of Wild America episodes had some staged component and even included unethical behavior, such as filming wolves chase and kill a deer within an enclosure that the deer could not escape. Stouffer denies these charges and has moved on to other projects, but his reputation among other professionals was badly tarnished.

Even David Attenborough, the most beloved natural history host of all time, has presented a faked scene that trod over the ethical line. For Life in Cold Blood, a captive cobra was placed upon a rock and agitated to spit at the celebrity naturalist. Marine biologist Andrew Thaler has recounted similar deceptions on Animal Planet shows Call of the Wildman and Gator Boys. Captive animals aren’t always available for a close-up, though, so, as Palmer also documents, some filmmakers are not above goading or harassing wild animals to get more dramatic, fierce reactions from their stars.

Interviewers aren’t above manipulation, either. When a crew from the History channel series MonsterQuest interviewed paleontologist Donald Prothero for a show about an Apatosaurus-like dinosaur that supposedly lives in the Congo Basin, they handed the scientist a plaster cast of what was meant to be – but clearly wasn’t – a footprint of the animal. Prothero rightly rejected the evidence, but the crew tried over and over again to film a “gotcha” moment of Prothero thrown off guard. That never happened. And when the show eventually aired, the program failed to mention that their star explorers were young earth creationists who were pursuing the dinosaur because they mistakenly believed such a discovery would discredit evolutionary theory. The utterly disreputable H2 show Ancient Aliens pulled a similar scam on viewers in their episode on dinosaurs, tapping religious fundamentalists as science experts.

Editing and presentation can create fiction from reality, too. Adam Welz has rightly observed that editors can still remix stock footage with scary music to spawn hyperbolic, unrealistic visions of animals. Shark Week itself is a perfect example of this ubiquitous trend. Discovery relies on blood in the water to bring in viewers, and any education the audience receives is an aside. One of this year’s new programs was called Great White Serial Killer, for crying out loud, and shark experts rightly scoffed at the overplayed bloodthirstiness of the show on Twitter.

Of course, there are reputable and ethical cinematographers who are disturbed by such trends. (See Shooting the Wild for a fuller account.) But even documentarians who operate ethically may create artificial sets or use computer generated imagery to show viewers something that would be impossible to capture otherwise. Whether this counts as deceit or not rests on how the behind-the-scenes process of filmmaking is accounted for and disclosed to audiences. The fact is, shows like Mermaids and Megalodon are extensions of trends that have been in place for years.

Documentary creators use sets, careful edits, and even computer-generated effects to get the scenes they want. What you’re seeing on screen may be a facsimile of nature rather than something captured without human interference. This should go without saying, but don’t believe everything you see on TV.

Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives gave science communicators like me an easy target. You really can’t miss a 50 foot shark. “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” If the program had clearly been labeled as fiction, I wouldn’t have much reason to get in a snit, but the show was clearly presented to capitalize on Discovery’s reputation as a non-fiction network and therefore dupe viewers. But in all this outrage, we shouldn’t forget that hoaxes, fraud, deception, and salacious depiction have existed for as long as there have been wildlife films. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon, especially since the most popular shows are the ones that are unapologetic fakes. Audiences bear some responsibility for making these monsters, too.

I’ve been heartened to see that objections to Discovery’s hoax have fleetingly catapulted some of my fellow science communicators into the media spotlight. Blogs, Twitter, and other forms of media, as Steven Silberman once observed, can act as a rapid-response immune system to nonsense, and quickly-executed takedowns may even change the public narrative. But I have absolutely no doubt that we’re going to go through all this again by next Shark Week, if not before. That’s why we need to keep talking. We may never be able to stop irresponsible ratings bait from airing, but we can try to co-opt the popularity of hyperbolic shows to maybe, just maybe, speak some science among the sensationalism.

[Note: National Geographic Wild is running a competing marathon called Sharkfest this week. I have not seen any of the episodes, but some of the show titles and clips – “California Killer”, “Florida Frenzy”, “Panic in Paradise”, etc. – seem to capitalize on the same hyperbole that Shark Week has relied on for so long. Everyone is chumming for viewers.]