It’s time for Shark Week to redeem itself

After taking harsh criticism from scientists in the past few years, can Shark Week salvage its reputation?
After taking harsh criticism from scientists in the past few years, can Shark Week salvage its reputation? –Discovery Channel

Shark Week needs saving from itself.

Diving into its 28th season Sunday, the week-long special premiered in 1988, spurred on from a Discovery Channel executive’s post-work scribbles on a cocktail napkin. The first program was called Caged in Fear, an educational piece on the testing of shark cages and how they resisted shark attacks.

The ratings took off, doubling Discovery’s usual primetime numbers, according to The Atlantic. From there, Shark Week never looked back.

Even the creators were surprised how Shark Week captivated the country. In 2010, it netted a record 62 million total viewers.

The popular success has recently come much to the dismay of shark experts, who say Shark Week has strayed from its original course, now relying more on fiction than fact and villainizing sharks rather than promoting their conservation.

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David Shiffman, a shark biologist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Miami, told Boston.com that Shark Week once was a “celebration of sharks’’ that encouraged viewers “to look at amazing animals in amazing places, and the amazing people who worked to study and protect them.’’

“In the past few years, there’s been a shift toward pseudoscience and fearmongering,’’ said Shiffman, who also live-tweets fact-checks and commentary on Shark Week on his account @WhySharksMatter.

In 2014, its highest-rated show was Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine, a fake documentary featuring a mythical shark that sunk a South African boat, actors posing as researchers, and a very brief disclaimer slide.

A year earlier, Shark Week aired Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, which speculated that a 50-foot shark that lived millions of years ago might still exist. The program attracted 4.8 million viewers, an all-time Shark Week record. It also prompted a vociferous backlash from scientists and a scathing blog post from actor Wil Wheaton.

“The Megalodon series was really bad. It used CGI video and photoshopped images, along with actors pretending to be scientists and witnesses and victims,’’ Shiffman said. “It claimed that an extinct shark was not actually extinct, and it is a danger to you and your family, and scientists are actively lying to you about whether it exists.’’

David Shiffman is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Miami studying shark biology and conservation. —Courtesy of David Shiffman
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The 2013 Shark Week airing of Megalodon convinced 71 percent of viewers the extinct shark was still alive.

In 2014, Discovery Channel ran a sequel.

Their integrity problems didn’t end there.

Shark Week producers also reportedly lied to scientists in 2014 to get them to appear in at least two documentaries, Voodoo Shark and Monster Hammerhead, about mythical creatures.

At the time, Discovery Channel’s response to the criticism was “The stories have been out there for years and with 95 percent of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?’’

Discovery spokesperson Laurie Goldberg told Boston.com that the critcism was fair, but pointed out that those shows were among the network’s highest rated.

“Everybody has their own opinion,’’ Goldberg said. “And some people loved those shows and others found them confusing.’’

Whether Shark Week is meant to serve sharks or the Discovery Channel is also unclear.

“I’m not someone who takes Shark Week too seriously,’’ Simon Thorrold, an ocean ecologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution told Boston.com. “I don’t necessarily think that it’s their job to inform people about sharks in a scientific matter.’’

However, as Thorrold noted before, the sensational depiction of sharks can have deleterious effects for the species. Humans kill an estimated 50 to 100 million sharks each year and eight shark species declined more than 50 percent in population from 1986 to 2000. Thorrold also said that the 1975 movie Jawslegitimized the hunting of sharks for those that viewed the animal as a “cold-blooded killer.’’

“The battle is trying to protect what we have left of that wild ocean before it’s all gone,’’ Thorrold said.

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“It’s harder to get people to care about conserving sharks when they’re afraid of sharks,’’ said Shiffman. “And many Shark Week specials have promoted fear and misunderstanding of sharks.’’

However, this year’s Shark Week could turn course back toward science and conservation.

In January, Discovery Channel’s new president Rich Ross told reporters that shows like Megalodon had “run their course.’’

“They’ve done very well, many of them, but it’s not something that’s right for us,’’ said Ross “If something [has been previously ordered], it’s probably still coming. But I’m telling you where I am and how I feel moving forward.’’

Goldberg was enthusiastic about Shark Week’s new direction under Ross.

“We have a new president and he’s not a fan of those shows,’’ she said. “This year will be literally 18 hours of pure shark science.’’

Goldberg pointed to a few programs on this year’s lineup — Tiburones: The Sharks of Cuba, the first joint-expedition between Cuban and American scientists to search for great whites in unexplored Cuban waters, and Shark Island, in which she said scientists tested the use of magnetic kelp so that surfers and sharks can coexist in an area with a history of attacks.

The network is also partnering for the first time with the Sea Save Foundation, which seeks to raise “awareness about the beauty of marine ecosystems and their fundamental importance to human survival.’’ Shark Week will also continue partnerships with two other ocean conservation non-profits: Oceana and Ghost Fishing.

Shiffman is cautiously optimistic.

“Much of the 2015 lineup looks like it will be better than the past few years, but there still may be significant problems,’’ he said.

“The Alien Sharks series is a fantastic example of quality natural history documentary filmmaking. It focuses on weird and wonderful sharks that rarely get screentime,’’ he said, adding that Alien Sharks will be back for a third installment this year.

“Some of the trash that aired the last few years shows that people will watch anything if it has the word “shark’’ in the title,’’ Shiffman said. “So why not make something good?’’

Shark Week has figured out how to tap into a fascination humans have with sharks, according to Thorrold, which could be used to spread awareness about a species under threat.

“I think it would be great if they use that ability to reach people on Shark Week to honestly reflect what’s happening to them,’’ he said.

“I understand they have a balance between entertainment and education, and would I like the balance to be a little bit different? Probably,’’ Thorrold said. “But I certainly understand that they’re doing it to get an audience to pay for advertising revenue and not necessarily educate people about the ocean.’’

13 sharks that swim the waters of New England.

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