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Not what we ordered

Not what we ordered

They found a statue of Elvis Presley on mars. It must be true – it was in the newspaper!

Britain’s tackiest ever tabloid really outshone itself with the ‘Elvis scoop’ in October 1989. It’s easy to laugh it off, but the law of averages says that someone, somewhere (and quite likely much more than a few) would have been deeply upset. For them, the king of rock and roll never was a laughing matter, more a focal point of their lives and maybe a household shrine or two. But it was all just a bit of harmless fun wasn’t it? A freaky red-top paper for a freaky readership, this was a newspaper that used the unbelievable to define itself. Believe it or not, as a commercial concern, The Sunday Sport made money. Among ‘serious journalists’, though, the rag knew its place and no real harm was ever done.

A medium like Discovery Channel finds it harder to know its place, or even to be defined. Having begun life in 1985 as a provider of popular science and technology programmes, the channel morphed into a kind of home for pseudo-scientific and reality show output. The strategy failed, and after a change of key personnel and output-tweaks a clutch of award nominations and ratings, recovery followed.

There was a brutal kind of honesty about The Sunday Sport, but in a peculiarly British way. Punters were expected to take their news in the spirit it was intended: tongue-in-cheek. That is the British way. Similarly, it’s unlikely anybody will have taken Sharknado to be anything other than pantomime. But Discovery Channel currently reaches 431 million homes in 170 countries and in 33 languages. Consequently, there’s little room for nuance here, or the quaint British penchant for irony and self-ridicule.

More importantly in this context, perhaps, the British are far from becoming extinct.

So, when the channel’s Shark Week appeared for the 27th year in succession this summer, its owners Discovery Communications would have hoped for a spike in viewership and ad revenues. Last year’s shark porn platform attracted an average 2.1 million primetime viewers with a peak of 29 million. According to the marketing rag Advertising Age, it was also the most-watched programming among 18-to-49 year olds for the week, topping all competitor broadcast and cable, while at the same time also driving more than 10 million interactions on Facebook. But Discovery Communications might have killed its golden goose. Because, you see…

Several shark species, however, actually are very close to becoming extinct.

In the same way that all things Elvis-related are important to Elvis fans, a growing global network of armchair marine activists are becoming increasingly alarmed at the reported imminent extinction of several shark species, including the iconic great white (Carcharodon carcharias). Aside from its rock star status, the great white is an apex predator, meaning it sits atop a food chain so that if it is removed from that food chain, the effects cascade to the bottom of the pecking order and the damage is therefore exponential and potentially cataclysmic.

Conservation lobbies and pressure groups all around the world are very active in creating awareness over issues from shark fin soup to the (probably illegal) Western Australia shark cull. Now they’ve got it, it seems to be not what was wanted after all.

Discovery Channel has done its part by doing what they do best: putting bums on seats in front of TV screens by appealing to the lowest common denominator and courting mass appeal. This would not have been achieved during Shark Week by transmitting graphs and tables of lifecycles, migration or the internal blood-heating system of larger pelagic squalii. It will have been done by showing blood, gore, interviews with the distraught & dismembered, shark ballet, sharks trying to eat pleasure divers out of cages and ‘scientist frat’ outings to exotic locations.

All well and good so far. Then Discovery Channel allegedly played an odd card… from the bottom of the deck.

Card-shark Week
Network “representatives” actively lied to scientists in order to have them appear on the programmes to lend credibility.

According to technical bloggers io9, a Shark Week film crew approached graduate Jonathan Davis while the scientist was studying bull sharks in the Gulf of Mexico as part of his master’s research. According to Davis, the crew were evasive in response to his questions about the show’s format. He says the final programme Voodoo Shark was a sleight-of-hand-job whereby his answers to seemingly legitimate scientific queries were slickly edited with totally unrelated content featuring ‘a Bayou fishermen’ (sic.) to render the final edit appear as a commentary on a mythical sea creature called “Rooken”*.

In so doing, Discovery Channel committed a cardinal sin – not just in the ecological community but – in media communities. The interests of these media are as wide-ranging and historically diverse as ancient Egyptian shamen rituals and 21st century Pentagon media advisors in uniform, but among the more credible one rule of thumb is generally held by all: never try to bullshit a bullshitter.

Now, this is not to say for a moment (in the context of Shark Week) that oceanographic ‘men and women of letters’ are charlatans, emphatically NO. It’s just a saying that warns about the perils of misjudging your audience.

Shark activists make up a tight wee community that is growing. Social platforms include WHITE SHARK INTEREST GROUP, WHITE SHARK ADVOCACY, Additionally, its scientific totems like Ralph Collier, Greg Skomal, Eric Ritter, Sean van Sommeran, John McCosker, George Burgess, Eugenie Clark et al (and ideally one day Jonathan Davis too) lack the movie star pretensions that make them hide themselves away from the public. They form a very accessible core of the community and, as such, are highly respected by the groups – the memberships of which will not take the Discovery Channel approach too kindly. So not only could advertisers be scarce next year, so will credible experts.

Discovery Channel took a gamble in the finest traditions of the old freakshow criers and carnies, but while it may have lost credibility among the conservationists it seems it has escaped punishment by the wider audience and the advertisers, because apparently Shark Week 2014 has enjoyed its best outing ever, reports globaldispatch.com.

There’s just one problem. The Global Dispatch report was published on Tuesday August 12th and the headline cries out Discovery gets highest ratings for ‘Shark Week’ in its 27 year historyfive days before Shark Week had run its course. The article is written in such a way that it is easy to infer the entire week was a ratings triumph. And you can bet that when Discovery Channel’s slick 5th Avenue ad sales agency barracudas are hustling to sign up advertisers and sponsors for Shark Week 2015 they’ll be clubbing every prospect over the head with this fact harder than a bunch of Wall Street traders on a seal-clubbing weekend after a heavy night on absinthe and crack.

While it’s true that the wide nature of the Shark Week audience means that Discovery Channel can indeed fool some of the people all of the time, the network could get bitten badly when it comes to selling airtime and sponsorships for Shark Week 2015.

And as for the audience…? Well, we will know only in 52 weeks’ time.

In the meantime, Shark Week fans might well be victims of the biggest con since Sacha Baron Cohen took Borat to the land of the free.

"I excite!"

“I excite!”

* Additional examples see http://www.iflscience.com/plants-and-animals/shark-week-lying-people-again,

2 thoughts on “Shark conservationists all shook up over Shark Week

  1. Maybe not shark related but I find quality scientific programmes few and far between. I saw BBC’s Civilisation series from the late 60’s (which is excellent) and Simon Schama’s History of Britain but they do seem to be exceptions to the general plethora of preaching scientific (you must agree with us or there’s something wrong with you) programmes that now seem to be the norm.

    Discovery will continuein the current vain because a, that’s what everyone else does; b, the general public are no longer clever enough to see it for what it is; and c, they no longer care.

    I once heard Dan Tetsal descibe the general populace as a Vernon Kay worshipping kak-ocracy. I not sure he’s far off the mark.

    Sad isn’t it.

    • I concur with the provision that it’s hard to strike the right medium between presenting what can be very dry scientific facts, with producing entertaining TV. The Beeb (and especially the wildlife production unit in Bristol) remain world leaders in this kind of production. But the “Phwooaaarrr, Sharky!” approach is so much an easy way out. It’s the nature programme equivalent of cracking nob gags.

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