Monster Sharks and Monster Ratings: The Rise of Infotainment.

Shark Week is an annual, week-long TV programming block aired on US cable network The Discovery Channel that has proven immensely popular with audiences – aired in 72 countries, it is not only the longest running television event in history (at 27 years), it is also one of the most successful blocks on cable television with 30 million viewers tuning in (Walker 2010). It has become something of a cultural phenomenon, with mentions of Shark Week found across over 900 000 blogs, social media sites and websites last year alone  (Levine 2015) and Stephen Colbert declaring it second only to Christmas as the most holiest of holidays for Americans. But a media endeavor this insanely successful will, of course, not come without controversy and The Discovery Channel’s increasing reliance on infotainment and mockumentaries has been well debated.

In 2013 The Discovery Channel came under fire for opening Shark Week with “a hoax” (Switek 2013) – a two-hour mockumentary on a possibly mythical, definitely giant, shark. Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives outraged fans and critics alike, with viewers accusing the previously scientifically driven network of ‘spreading lies about sharks’ (Welsh 2013) and suggesting they owed their viewers an apology (Wheaton 2013) for misleading them. Despite viewers vowing to boycott, 2013 Shark Week was the highest-rated to date and 2014 Shark Week doubled the mockumentary content, with titles such as Megalodon: New Evidence, Zombie Sharks, and Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss filling the week’s line-up (Cohen 2014).

The outcry has been especially pronounced because The Discovery Channel had once been commended for its high-quality documentaries and educational programming (Mjos 2010, p12). Papson’s 1992 article specified that The Discovery Channel airs “no fictional programming” and Shark Week was once lauded as bringing content to the masses that corrected “the kinds of misconceptions about sharks that Jaws helped to spread” (Cohen 2014).

So why the move away from this sort of content? Nature documentaries, once created to give viewers an unfiltered into the natural world, have shifted in the last decade into something that has the primary purpose of entertaining viewers who have a wealth of choice (Evans 2015). It is, put simply, more fun for the audience to watch than a purely factual documentary (NPR Staff 2014) and the constantly climbing Shark Week ratings reflect this. It is certainly not a new technique, with nature infotainment focusing on sharks seen as far back as Peter Gimbel’s 1971 film Blue Water, White Death, a film that purposely blurred the line “between real and fictional scenes… in order to stoke the fears of the audience” (Horak 2006).

These entertainment-focused programs, when aired on a channel that appears to be dedicated to science and fact, like The Discovery Channel, can mislead audiences with what is and isn’t real. The increasing use of special effects and computer-generated images further blurs these lines (Metz 2008). Cultivation theory highlights that this can cause a major problem; audiences are susceptible to messages presented on television, particularly ones framed with a ‘veneer’ of educational context (Evans 2015).

It seems though that, for now, The Discovery Channel has listened to its critics (de Moreas 2015), with president Rich Ross vowing last year to make content “more science and research focused” (Epstein 2015). It remains to be seen if more realistic content stops the rating bonanza that is Shark Week.

References:

Cohen, M 2014, ‘The history of Shark Week: How the Discovery Channel both elevated and degraded sharks’, The Week, August 14 2014, <http://theweek.com/articles/444542/history-shark-week-how-discovery-channel-both-elevated-degraded-sharks&gt;

Epstein, A 2015, ‘No more Megalodon: Discovery Channel promises a more scientific “Shark Week” this year’, Quartz, July 06 2015, <http://qz.com/445516/no-more-megalodon-discovery-channel-promises-a-more-scientific-shark-week-this-year/&gt;

Evans, S 2015, ‘Shark Week and the Rise of Infotainment in Science Documentaries’, Communication Research Reports,Vol. 32, Iss. 3, 2015, Accessed 28/03/16 at <http://www-tandfonline.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/doi/abs/10.1080/08824096.2015.1052903&gt;

Horak, J.C, 2006, ‘Wildlife documentaries: From classical forms to reality TV’
(2006) Film History: An International Journal, 18 (4), pp. 459-475, <http://www-scopus-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/record/display.uri?eid=2-s2.0-61149486339&origin=reflist&recordRank=&gt;

Levine, S 2015, ‘Shark Week 2015 Seemed To Be Better Received Than The Previous Year’, Sysomos, July 2015, https://blog.sysomos.com/2015/07/20/shark-week-2015/

Metz, A M 2008, ‘A fantasy made real: The evolution of the subjunctive documentary on U.S. cable science channels’, Television & New Media, issue 9, vol 4, pg333–348. http://ey9ff7jb6l.search.serialssolutions.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/?sid=tandf&iuid=82791&genre=journal&aulast=Metz&date=2008&atitle=A+fantasy+made+real%3A+The+evolution+of+the+subjunctive+documentary+on+U.S.+cable+science+channels&stitle=Television+%26+New+Media&volume=9&issue=4&spage=333&

Mjos, O J 2010, Media Globalization and the Discovery Channel Networks, First Edition, Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group), New York NY

NPR 2014, ‘When Wildlife Documentaries Jump The Shark’, NPR, Aug 30 2014, http://www.npr.org/2014/08/30/344562317/when-wildlife-documentaries-jump-the-shark

Papson, S 1992, ‘”Cross the Fin Line of Terror”: Shark Week on the Discovery Channel’, 1992, Journal of American Culture (01911813), vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 67-81.

Switek, B 2013, ‘It Came From Basic Cable’, National Geographic, 9 August 2013, http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/09/it-came-from-basic-cable/

Walker, H. (2010, August 10). Discovery’s “Shark Week” sets ratings record. The Wrap. Retrieved from www.thewrap.com

Welsh, J 2013, ‘People Are Boycotting Shark Week Because Of A Fake Documentary About A Giant Shark’, Business Insider Australia, Aug 6 2013, <http://www.businessinsider.com.au/discovery-channel-fake-megalodon-documentary-2013-8?r=US&IR=T&gt;

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