Monday, August 12, 2013

Megalo-debacle: Did Discovery Really Commit a Faux-Pas?

For over two decades, Shark Week on Discovery Channel has been raising awareness of one of the ocean's most mysterious and powerful predators. Discovery originally started Shark Week with the purpose to dispel myths about the dangers of sharks, and to heighten the public's respect for the creatures. However, this year, many fans have felt outraged that Discovery may be straying further away from the original purpose of Shark Week. This year, Discovery unveiled the faux-documentary, Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives.

Megalodon, for the record, are definitely, absolutely extinct. They were super-sized sharks that once roamed the oceans some 2 million years ago.

Relative size of Megalodon (red and grey) vs. human. Source.

The Discovery special, on the other hand, suggested an alternative. Megalodon still roams the oceans, somewhere off the coast of South Africa. The documentary looked and seemed like any other documentary about real life events (however fantastic.) It convinced 70% of viewers that Megalodon could still live today. However, it was all fake. If you blinked you may have missed the disclaimers posted in small print:
"None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents."
"Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of [the Megaladon,] 'Submarine' continue to this day."
"Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still debate about what they may be."
These disclaimers appeared and disappeared quickly. Even if you had time to read them, they were still vague and beat around the bush. Nowhere do any of them directly say, "none of what you are viewing is based in fact."

It didn't take long for the blogosphere to ignite in outrage over the "documentary." Actor Wil Wheaton demanded Discovery apologize for misleading their audience. Popular science communicator, Christie Wilcox, wrote an open letter expressing her disappointment and anger with the direction Discovery has chosen to take with this year's Shark Week. Fans and scientists took to twitter to express their frustration. However, Discovery has stood by its documentary. Shark Week executive producer, Michael Sorensen, released this statement:
With a whole week of Shark Week Programming ahead of us, we wanted to explore the possibilities of Megalodon. It's one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, "can Megalodon exist today?" It's the ultimate Shark Week Fantasy. The stories have been out there for years and with 95 percent of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?
This statement is even more misleading. Asking "can Megalodon exist?" is not the same as asking, "does Megalodon exist?" which was the question the documentary was really asking.

When I first heard that the documentary was fake, I posted a link to Christie Wilcox's open letter on my facebook. It got several shares and comments from my friends who were as upset and disappointed as I was. Eventually my sister chimed in with a point that stopped me dead in my self-righteous tracks.
Maybe I'm missing something because I haven't seen [the show] but I'm not sure why it's generating this level of outrage. Annoyance, sure. Disappointment, totally fine. But that article is way over the top. They made a fake documentary and weren't so forthcoming with the "fake" bit (intentionally, I'm sure). They had 70% of viewers going for a minute there. Seems like that was probably the point right? They probably counted on the outrage from the science community to make their disclaimer for them. Success on all counts! Plus anyone who wasn't already aware now knows Shark Week has kicked off. I think expectations that Discovery is anything but a TV channel with a marketing plan are kind of off.
I think my sister, Laura, makes a lot of good points here and raises many important questions. First off: what responsibility does a TV channel have to present facts? They made the disclaimers, however vague and however quickly. And, as Laura pointed out, if there was anyone who missed the disclaimers, they certainly know now that the documentary was fake. Do we really have the right to be outraged? Are we, the "science community," just personally offended that Shark Week no longer meets our standards for good educational television? Or does Discovery have an obligation to uphold the original purpose and message of Shark Week from 26 years ago? I want to hear your thoughts. Discuss!


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