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;

Fitbit Furore: Should we love or hate self-quantified culture?

My mother has a Fitbit, so do two of my closest friends. My cousin swears by her activity tracker, which is complete with an inbuilt GPS that tracks where and how far she runs. I’ve so far resisted the allure of the constant tracking of my body because, to be honest, the whole thing sort of terrifies me.

fitbit-productive

There is evidence that wearable devices capable of tracking your movement, heart rate, calories burnt and kilometres run have been helpful for many people in their pursuit of health and fitness. Writer Gary Wolf is a firm advocate for this form of self-quantification and argues that if we want to act more effectively in the world, we have to get to know ourselves better.” (2010). He credits these devices as useful for “self-improvement, self-discovery, self-awareness and self-knowledge” (2010) and, although only a new technology with few studies done (Rawassizadeh et al. 2015), some psychology seems to back these claims up – by being able to interact, change and share data about ourselves instantly, the wearable devices reinforce, motivate and reward the user, turning exercise and self-care into a ‘game’ (Beckham 2012). Cadmus-Bertham et al. (2014) found that women, in particular, seem to respond well to wearable fitness trackers, with an increase in activity and a reduction in BMI being recorded over a sixteen-week study.

There are, of course, potential risks and downsides to tracking such a large amount of data about us on a daily basis. Professor Jordan Etkin from Duke University discovered that people get obsessed with their fitness trackers and this can make them miserable:

“Enjoyable activities can became almost like a job, by focusing on the outcomes of things that used to be fun… Rather than merely drawing attention away from an enjoyable activity, measurement also draws attention towards output, which undermines motivation and overall happiness.”

This concern aside, there are also doubts over whether wearable activity trackers are as accurate as they claim (Bloomberg 2016). Sasaki et al. (2015) found that wearables, in particular the Fitbit, have a long way to go when it comes to accuracy in counting human movement. Cadmus-Bertham et al. (2014) also acknowledge that, although the sensor technology within wearables is a remarkable innovation, the extent of data loss and uncertainty is still significant.

These are worrying downsides to these sorts of devices, but the most concerning to me is highlighted by academics Katina Michaels and Kieth W. Miller, who argue that we need to be constantly mindful of our privacy when using these devices because many of us don’t actually know who can access and track the data we are generating about our own bodies (2013). A recent US Federal Trade Commission study found that twelve of the biggest Fitness Apps were disseminating user data to 76 different third parties (Kaye 2014) and big brands, such as Nike, are open about their desire to use user data to design new products, guide brand and strategy and turn our personal mini fitness achievements into “intimate, highly personalised marketing” (McGowan 2013).

The appeal of self-quantification is pretty obvious, and the technology is remarkable, but the downsides to these wearable devices are enough for me to resist their potential benefits. Do you own an activity tracker? Why do you love (or hate) this new phenomenon?

References:

Image Credit

Beckham, J 2016, ‘Fitness Trackers Use Psychology to Motivate Couch Potatoes’, Wired, 19 April 2012, accessed 11/03/16 at <http://www.wired.com/2012/04/fitness-tracker-psychology/&gt;

Bloomberg, J 2016, ‘From Fitbit To Volkswagen: The Dangers Of Inaccurate Data’, Forbes: Tech, Jan 10, viewed 12/03/16 at <http://www.forbes.com/sites/jasonbloomberg/2016/01/10/from-fitbit-to-volkswagen-the-dangers-of-inaccurate-data/#707349e51b65&gt;

Cadmus-Bertram, L A, Marcus B H, Patterson, R E, Parker, B A, Morey, B L 2015, ‘Randomized Trial of a Fitbit-Based Physical Activity Intervention for Women’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Volume 49, Issue 3, pg414-418. Accessed 11/03/16 at < http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/science/article/pii/S0749379715000446>

Etkin, J 2015, ‘Why Counting Your Steps Could Make You Unhappier’, Duke: The FUQUA School of Business, December 21 2015, accessed 12/03/16 at < http://www.fuqua.duke.edu/news_events/news-releases/jordan-etkin-tracking/#.VwD-DT9NsgQ&gt;

McGowan, M 2013, ‘Nike Sharing Its New FuelBand Data With Marketers: Fitness tracker toes the line between ‘awesome’ and ‘creepy’, Ad Week, June 21 2013, accessed 03/04/16 at <http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/nike-sharing-its-new-fuelband-data-marketers-150553&gt;

Michael, K and Miller, K W 2013, ‘Big Data: New Opportunities and New Challenges [Guest editors’ introduction]’, IEEE Computer Society, Vol.46, Issue No.06, pp22-24, viewed 11/03/16< http://www.computer.org/csdl/mags/co/2013/06/mco2013060022.html>

Kaye, K 2014, ‘FTC: Fitness Apps Can Help You Shred Calories — and Privacy’, Ad Age, May 07 2014, accessed 11/03/16 at <http://adage.com/article/privacy-and-regulation/ftc-signals-focus-health-fitness-data-privacy/293080/&gt;

Rawassizadeh, R, Momeni E, Dobbins, C, Mirza-Babaei, P, and Rahnamoun, R 2015, ‘Lesson Learned from Collecting Quantified Self Information via

Mobile and Wearable Devices’, Journal Of Sensor and Actuator Networks, 4, 4, pp. 315-335, Computers & Applied Sciences Complete, accessed 11/03/16 at < http://eds.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=8d2bc783-c06e-4978-b197-efaa301a2928@sessionmgr120&hid=126&preview=false&gt;

Sasaki, J E, Hickey, A, Mavilia, M, Tedesco, J, John, D, Kozey Keadle, S and Freedson, P S, 2015, ‘Validation of the Fitbit Wireless Activity Tracker for Prediction of Energy Expenditure’, Journal of Physical Activity and Health, issue 12, pp149-154, viewed 11/03/16 <http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=4&sid=b72f66f8-4169-4cd6-9aab-94e4af45b885@sessionmgr4002&hid=4213&preview=false&gt;

Wolf, G 2010, The Quantified Self, Ted@Cannes, June 2010, < http://www.ted.com/talks/gary_wolf_the_quantified_self/transcript?language=en&gt;