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8 ways to tell if Shark Week has really improved this year

sharkThe 27th Shark Week starts this Sunday, July 5th. It’s no secret that I’ve been very critical of Shark Week content in the recent past. However, Discovery has made a public commitment to do better this year, and everything I’ve seen suggests that they really mean it. But what exactly does “better” mean? Here are eight specific things to look out for while you watch Shark Week this year.

1) Are there any totally fake documentaries? Like, 100% fake, as in the events that take place in those documentaries did not occur at all, and everyone in the show is an actor, and all the images and videos are computer generated? It’s worth noting that the new Discovery President has specifically promised not to do this anymore.  

Prediction: There will be no totally fake documentaries in 2015.  Woo hoo! Keep an eye out for “Super Predator,”though.  Some folks (incorrectly) claimed that the actual events it describes were proof that megalodon was still alive.

2) Do documentaries showcase qualified experts, or at least interview qualified experts? Plenty of people who aren’t trained scientists can rightly be described as “shark experts,” but past Shark Week documentaries show a lot of  self-proclaimed “experts” who don’t seem to have a clue what they’re talking about. Documentaries should interview a scientist explaining the background of a question, how the efforts presented in the documentary help answer it, and what the results they found mean.  Particularly when a Shark Week documentary is ostensibly trying to answer a scientific question.

Prediction: This year will be better, but some of the folks involved in making some of this year’s specials are repeat offenders at doing this poorly. By this measurement, I’m concerned about Shark Clans, Island of the Mega Shark, Super Predator, Sharks of the Shadowland, and Shark Island.

3) Are they showcasing diverse scientists? Approximately half of elasmobranch biologists are female, which you’d never know from watching past Shark Week documentaries. Also, no more explicit sexism would be nice; last year Shark Week showcased a viewer tweet commenting on the physical appearance of the only named female scientist who was featured during the whole week.

Prediction: Hard to say.

4) Are they promoting wildlife harassment? Scientific research sometimes looks a little rough to the untrained eye, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Some specials in the recent past have focused on wildlife harassment for no reason except that it looks cool on TV. This would be an excellent thing to cut back on.

Prediction: Hard to say. The “SharkTacular” preview focused on a lot of YouTube videos of shark harassment, but also included some qualified experts explaining why this is a bad idea and why you shouldn’t do it. SharkSanity looks like it will be more of this. So I’d call that a slight improvement, I guess?

5) Are they showcasing more shark biodiversity? Great white sharks are awesome, but there are lots of other species- in fact, over 500 of ’em. Let’s see something we haven’t seen before! Other sharks need publicity, conservation and research, too.

Prediction: It looks like there will still be lots of great whites this year, but also another Alien Sharks special, a special focusing on sevengills (Sharks of the Shadowland), a special focusing on makos (Monster Mako), and a special that includes threshers (Ninja Sharks)! So, a major improvement in this regard.

6) Is there any inflammatory fearmongering? The way that sharks are portrayed on Shark Week can be damaging to public perception of sharks.  Are they portrayed realistically, or in a needlessly inflammatory and fearmongering manner? Do they call it an “invasion” when a shark swims in the ocean? Do they call sharks menacing, or vicious, monstrous, terrifying, or bloodthirsty? Is it referred to as a “SharkPocalypse” or “SharkAgeddon” It’s totally possible to make an entertaining documentary without sensationalizing reality beyond recognition.

Prediction: “Great White Serial Killer” was a case study in inaccurate and inflammatory fearmongering, and they made a sequel this year. Shark Island is about shark bites. And some of the folks involved in making a few other 2015 specials are repeat offenders at this kind of thing. So I predict that there will be less inflammatory fearmongering this year, but not none.

7) Will there be any discussions of shark conservation? Sharks are one of the most Threatened groups of animals on the planet, according to the IUCN Red List. It seems to me that it’d be nice for a week of educational documentaries focusing on these animals to mention that.

Prediction: There aren’t any specials explicitly focusing on conservation this year, but Tiburones mentions the shark fisheries of Cuba and a proposed new NPOA. I predict that a few other specials might also mention conservation, but not all of them.

8) Do documentaries show evidence of basic fact-checking? When the narrator or host is talking about sharks or their behavior, is what they are saying correct? I’ve seen countless small errors that a cursory google search would resolve. How big do certain species get? How many species are there? What’s the status of their populations? Is something they’re describing on screen a typical or atypical behavior, or even possible? The answers to these questions are out there.

Prediction: This will be better for the new science-focused specials, but some of the folks involved in making a few other specials are repeat offenders at getting this wrong.

What specials look like they’re going to be the best? In my opinion, the best shows this year will be “Shark Planet,” Alien Sharks 3: Close Encounters,” and “Tiburones: the Sharks of Cuba. Monster Mako also looks promising, and Shark  Trek is the latest in a series of pretty good documentaries about Dr. Greg Skomal’s great white research.

What specials look like they’re going to be the worst? Return of the Great White Serial Killer and Super Predator look like they’re going to be particularly egregious. I’m wary of Shark Island, Shark Clans, Sharks of the Shadowlands, and Island of the Mega Shark, but I’d be happy to be wrong.

Overall prediction: I am cautiously optimistic that Shark Week 2015 will be a huge step forward. However, it’s important to note that not every problem can be fixed in a year, particularly since some 2015 specials were commissioned before the new President committed to improve things. Much better doesn’t mean perfect, but much better does mean that we should praise what we like while we still continue to criticize what we don’t like.


For your reference, here is when the shows I mention in this post, along with all the other shows, will air:

Sunday, July 5:

8:00-9:00 PM SHARK TREK
9:00-10:00 PM ISLAND OF THE MEGA SHARK
10:00-11:00 PM MONSTER MAKO
11:00-11:30 PM SHARK AFTER DARK

Monday, July 6:

9:00-10:00 PM RETURN OF THE GREAT WHITE SERIAL KILLER
10:00-11:00 PM ALIEN SHARKS: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS
11:00-11:30 PM SHARK AFTER DARK

Tuesday, July 7:

9:00-10:00 PM BRIDE OF JAWS
10:00-11:00 PM TIBURONES: SHARKS OF CUBA
11:00-11:30 PM SHARK AFTER DARK

Wednesday, July 8:

9:00-10:00 PM SUPER PREDATOR
10:00-11:00 PM NINJA SHARKS
11:00-11:30 PM SHARK AFTER DARK

Thursday, July 9:

9:00-11:00 PM SHARK PLANET
11:00-11:30 PM SHARK AFTER DARK

Friday, July 10:

9:00-10:00 PM SHARKS OF THE SHADOWLAND
10:00-11:00 PM SHARK CLANS

Saturday, July 11:

9:00-10:00 PM SHARKSANITY 2

Sunday, July 12:

8:00-9:00 PM SHARK ISLAND