So I’m settled in to enjoy this year’s Shark Week, my second favorite shark-related time of the year (AES having taken over at first), and notice with some trepidation that the week is kicking off with a “documentary” on modern day attacks by Carcharocles megalodon. Megalodon was a 50-60-foot member of the mackerel shark family (great whites, porbeagles, and makos being the best-known modern members) that regularly attacked and consumed whales and is now very much extinct. The premise of tonight’s Shark Week programming was that these giant sharks have been hiding out in the deep sea, waiting for the right combination of climate change, geological events, and whale populations to re-emerge and start munching on the occasional fishing boat. Basically, Discovery saw the reaction to the two Mermaids mockumentaries and the lesson they learned was that they need more of that.
Here’s the promo for the kick-off to Shark Week, titled “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives:”
As a lifelong shark nerd and current shark researcher-in-training, I can assure you that Megalodon, as awesome as it was, is no longer with us. The overwhelming evidence that this shark is peacefully extinct has been covered elsewhere, and suffice to say a 50-foot shark that inhabits shallow water and attacks whales would probably have been noticed before now. Megalodon is a really cool species for sure, but we have plenty of amazing shark species currently swimming in the world’s oceans. There’s the leaping, superpredatory great white (a species that Shark Week devotes most of its time to already), the highly migratory and omnivorous tiger shark, the sand tiger, which cannibalizes its own siblings in the womb, the bull shark, which swims up rivers, the various hammerhead species with their fancy headgear, the whip-tailed thresher shark, dogfish sharks that swarm in the thousands, lantern sharks that glow in the freakin’ dark… All of these species would make for great footage, but instead Shark Week devoted its two-hour premiere to a completely fictional story about an extinct species.
There is a precedent for this, and it can be found in the two Mermaids mockumentaries that were run on Animal Planet. I’m not against speculative fiction; if done properly, a show about how mermaids could actually work might actually be pretty cool and educational. Instead, Animal Planet ran the shows largely without any indication that they were fictional, save for very brief disclaimers at the end. The result was an internet firestorm of people who had been taken by the hoax in a kind of modern-day twist on the 1938 broadcast of “War of the Worlds” that had Americans believing they were being attacked by aliens. The difference is that Animal Planet (which is owned by Discovery Networks) intentionally obscured any indication that the Mermaids shows were fake.
“Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” did pretty much the same thing: rather than have disclaimers at the commercial breaks, Discovery instead ran blurbs about having “exclusive footage” of the prehistoric shark. In the last two minutes or so I caught a very brief subtitle that looked like it was the “oh yeah, this is fake” disclaimer, but it was gone before I got a good look at it (if anyone has a screen shot let me know and I’ll add it as an update to this post). To immediately gauge whether this disclaimer had any effect (if it even existed), check out the poll that Shark Week has up on the subject: as of the time of this post, 80% of respondents answered either “yes” or “maybe” with regards to Megalodon still being alive today.
Shark Week should be picking up later (tomorrow’s programming involves Cape Cod great whites), but it’s disconcerting to see the “Mermaids-ing” of Shark Week. Apparently these mockumentaries are just something Discovery does now.