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Last year’s Shark Week coverage

The online shark science community has been critical of the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” in the past because some of the documentaries promote fear of sharks at a time when we should be promoting respect and conservation. According to the Dorsal Fin blog, this year is looking like it will bring us more of the same, though one particular story won’t be covered because it happened so recently.  Since Shark Week is starting to be discussed again by the blogosphere, I am re-posting all of last year’s Shark Week coverage. This includes an interview with the Discovery Channel’s Senior Science Editor (originally here), a detailed evaluation of each of the Shark Week specials (originally here), and ten suggestions for how to improve future Shark Week programming (originally here). All of the original comments are preserved at the old site.

Interview with Discovery Channel Executive Paul Gasek

July 7, 2009

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the controversy surrounding this year’s “Shark Week”. Some shark conservationists believe that the Discovery Channel is promoting negative stereotypes about sharks at a time when we should be promoting conservation. Paul Gasek, Senior Science Editor and Executive Producer for the Discovery Channel, wanted to tell his side of the story, and agreed to be interviewed for Southern Fried Science. I let you, the readers of Southern Fried Science, suggest questions for my interview.

This interview has generated a great deal of buzz. Over a dozen science blogs directed readers to Southern Fried Science to submit questions, and I want to thank everyone who helped spread the word. Between e-mail, facebook, and direct blog submissions, I received well over 100 questions. It’s clear that lots of people care about this issue, and I think I speak for everyone when I tell you that we all appreciate Paul taking the time to answer our questions.

Because some questions were similar, and because some submitters are international and don’t speak English as a first language, I have rephrased and combined several questions. According to my agreement with Discovery, I have limited this interview to ten questions. Also according to my agreement with Discovery, I have not edited Paul’s responses in any way.

Whysharksmatter (WSM): How does one become the Discovery Channel’s Senior Science Editor? What is your background? How did you get into this line of work? What is your favorite thing about your job? Do you have any advice for others who are interested in this career path?

Paul Gasek (PG): I’ve spent 25 years making science and natural history-based programming for National Geographic, PBS, Animal Planet, TLC, Science Channel and now Discovery Channel.  Science is, collectively, the biggest non-fiction story on the planet and needs to be told.  I’m especially interested in the areas of climate, ocean ecology and sustainability.  I strive to tell these stories in a comprehensible, interesting and entertaining way.  It does no good to do science programming that no one watches.   So I work hard to find a balance.

DiscoveryChannel

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WSM: Do you believe that how movies, the news, and networks like the Discovery Channel portray sharks affects how the public views sharks? For example, in the scientific community, it is widely acknowledged that the movie Jaws has encouraged public fear of sharks. We can’t help but notice that a poster for this year’s Shark Week bears a strong resemblance to the movie poster for Jaws. Though your website has lots of conservation information, do you believe that some of your programming promotes fear of sharks?

PG: At Discovery Channel, we pride ourselves on telling compelling and accurate stories.  Shark Week is no different.  Two of our shows this year are based on actual historical events: one is about the first U.S.-based shark attacks on record, off the New Jersey shore in 1916, and the other is about the infamous summer of 2001 when more than 50 swimmers were attacked by sharks off U.S. beaches.  It is a fact that sharks sometimes mistake people for prey and attack.  In these, and many of our shows, we are digging deeper than the media headlines and telling the stories behind the stories.

sharkweekjaws

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WSM:  Are you and other Discovery Channel executives aware of the following facts?:

A)   Sharks kill less than ten humans a year

B)    Less than 1% of shark species have ever bitten a human

C)    Sharks play key roles in regulating ecosystems

D)   Losses of shark populations have resulted in collapses of economically important fisheries

E)    More than 100 million sharks a year are killed in one of the most wasteful, unsustainable, and brutal fishing practices on Earth…

F)    Resulting in dozens of species suffering 95% or higher population declines in the last thirty years?

Please see this blog post for sources (and elaborations) on all of these facts.

PG:  We are absolutely aware of the plight – and importance – of sharks.  And while we have millions of people watching our Shark Week programming (29 million people last year) and visiting our Shark Week website (one million people in July alone) we work hard to educate them about the importance of shark conservation.

Each year, Discovery Channel partners with Ocean Conservancy on a Public Service Announcement about the state of sharks which airs throughout Shark Week.  Here’s the script for this year’s PSA:

“Everyone hears about the rare incident of a shark mistaking a human for food – but the reality is we are taking sharks out of the ocean by the millions. Some shark species are down by 80%. Many face extinction. Sharks need your help to survive. Help Discovery and Ocean Conservancy protect sharks around the world — go to Discovery.com to learn more.””

We also dedicate a large portion of our website to shark conservation, using it as a tool to entertain and educate people.  Here are a few of my favorites:

a resource center for conservation organizations (http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/sharkweek/more/more.html)

a map showing the state of shark populations worldwide (http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/sharkweek/map/map.html)

and a Sharkrunners game that uses real data from scientists around the world to track sharks and learn more about them (http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/sharkweek/shark-runners/shark-runners.html)

The Discovery Channel’s partner for a public service announcement about sharks:

Discovery's partner for a public service announcement about  sharks

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WSM: Professional wildlife photographers almost always acknowledge when they have manipulated a shot rather than photographing a natural behavior. However, many of the behaviors shown on Discovery Channel Shows are obviously manipulated, either through chumming, artificially encouraging “feeding frenzies”, or, in one case, stuffing dead fish into a dummy to simulate a shark attack. Why do you use shots that aren’t natural behaviors at all, and when you do use them, why do you not stress more that the behaviors were manipulated by the photographer in order to get a more dramatic shot?

PG: As you know, sharks can be camera shy and/or less abundant.  Consistent with tourist dive operations, we often have to chum to bring them in.  After all, what’s a shark show without sharks?  You’ll notice in this year’s shows we point out when bait is used so viewers can see how sharks behave in these situations.

On one particular shoot this year, we didn’t have to bait at all!  We filmed sandtigers off the coast of North Carolina for the SHARK AFTER DARK show.  While we had permission to chum in this area to show feeding behavior, we chose not to as it is one of the few places in the U.S. you can reliably see sharks without baiting.  We definitely made the right decision – what a privilege to film in this special location where the food was abundant and so were the sharks.

A mako chewing on a chum crate. Image from riverandreef.com:

A mako chewing on a chum crate. Image from riverandreef.com

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WSM: This controversy surrounding shark week isn’t new. A group of shark conservationists last year met with you and other Discovery Channel executives for over four hours. At this meeting, these conservationists say that you agreed to try and change the tone of shark week (which clearly hasn’t happened, this year’s schedule features shows like “Deadly Waters” and “Sharkbite Summer”). They also say that you asked them to submit ideas, they sent lots of ideas, and that you never responded to them. What do you have to say about these complaints?

PG: In 30 years of work in television, I’ve heard a lot of pitches.  So you can imagine how many come into the network.  I asked our development team about this and here is what they said:

“Discovery Channel receives over 300 program ideas per week.  We take a great deal of time vetting each idea based on editorial fit, financial feasibility, and programming need.  Unfortunately, the scarcity of available slots means that most of these programming ideas we see never hit air.  Of this pool of 300 pitches, only one or two are greenlit.”

For all of Shark Week this year, there are six premieres – a few of which have been in production for more than a year.

I also want to address the objection to some of the Shark Week program titles.  These titles are designed to be attention-getting and bring people to the network.  We have to get people to watch the shows in order to educate and entertain them.  I’ve never known a title to make someone afraid of sharks – but I have known a title to get someone to watch a show about them.

SharkWeekLogo

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WSM: With reference to health care reform, President Obama recently said “To those who simply criticize without offering new ideas of their own, I have to ask, what’s your answer?” I agree, and I try to only criticize when I can offer an alternative. My readers have suggested dozens of other types of documentaries than those that focus on sharks attacking people. One notes that since sharks are such well adapted hunters, that simply watching them hunt for seals or fish should offer plenty of thrills to DC’s viewers. Several suggested showing movies about the shark fin fishery, or how sharks are crucial to marine ecosystems. One suggested a movie about some of the world’s weirdest sharks (many deepwater animals are crazy looking), another suggestion was to follow a shark-killing tournament while interspersing conservation facts, another involves shark tanks in aquariums around the world. Others suggest a show about animals in the ocean deadlier than sharks, such as venomous animals. I saw two great conservation-minded documentaries at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival: “Requiem”, a woman’s quest to swim with the world’s most dangerous sharks to learn if they really are dangerous (interspersed with conservation facts throughout), and “Shark Nicole/Great White Shark Odyssey”, which chronicled the life of an individual shark and the threats she faced as she migrated across the oceans. There are many more suggestions as well. What do you think about these ideas?

PG :P eople interact with Discovery in many ways – our news service, our website and, of course, our on-air programming.  We offer a variety of information and resources on all of these outlets, from the latest in shark research to online games using real shark data.

Regarding on-air programming, as I said, we get hundreds of pitches for every one that makes it to air.  And those are from production companies with all the resources and filmmaking expertise already in place.  We get hundreds more from viewers with their own ideas about what they want to see on our network.  And we welcome this.  The more ideas we get, the more we have to choose from, ensuring the very best ones make it to air.

What research tells us about Shark Week is it’s the interaction between sharks and people that attract viewers.  So we try to find a variety of ways to do this.  For example, in our new show ‘Shark After Dark’ (for which I served I was executive producer), shark experts got into the water with various sharks – at night – to learn more about shark behavior in the dark.  It’s action packed and a bit scary at times.  But the team came back with great information and an amazing show.  It’s this energy, action and adventure that bring people to Discovery Channel and to Shark Week.  And while they often come to Discovery for the excitement, they stay for the information.

A rare deep sea frilled shark, which some Southern Fried Science readers think would be an interesting topic for a documentary:

A rare deep sea frilled shark, which some Southern Fried Science  readers think would be an interesting topic for a documentary

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WSM: The Discovery Channel has recently dealt with other series, most notably, Man vs. Wild, portraying false depictions of man surviving in the wilderness, when he is actually surviving a hotel room.  With this scandal and Shark Week’s sensationalistic, inaccurate, and environmentally harmful depictions of sharks, do you still consider the Discovery Channel’s goal to educate viewers with documentaries about the natural world, or do you consider yourselves to be a network that entertains with fiction?

PG: We are constantly raising the standards of our programming and pride ourselves on the fact that Discovery Communications is the number one nonfiction media company in the world.  To say we strive for anything less than that would be completely inaccurate.

It is important to correct statements where inaccurate.  To clarify, the Man vs. Wild incident was two years ago and the show was immediately changed to be transparent.

As I said, Discovery Channel makes every effort to create compelling and accurate shows.  To help with Shark Week, we enlisted marine biologist Andy Dehart – who has extensive shark experience – to help us ensure the accuracy of our shark shows.

Hotel or no, Bear Grylls is a hardcore individual. Here he is eating a recently killed zebra:

Hotel or no, Bear Grylls is a hardcore individual. Here he is  eating a recently killed zebra.

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WSM: There are many smart, dedicated people in the shark conservation community. How can we help you and the Discovery Channel to portray sharks in a more accurate and conservation-friendly light? As a scientist and conservationist, I am happy to volunteer my services as a consultant for whatever you need, and I know I’m not alone. What can we do to help?

PG: I can’t think of another science-based group more passionate about their work than shark scientists and conservationists.  And we appreciate that commitment.  We have tapped into the expertise of several shark experts on this year’s Shark Week programming and online content including Andy Dehart of the National Aquarium, Sonja Fordham of the Ocean Conservancy, International Shark Attack File Curator George Burgess, legendary shark filmmaker Jeff Kurr and marine biologist and Neptunic Sharksuit inventor Jeremiah Sullivan to name just a few.  These are all devoted “sharkies” and we value their guidance as we continue to make Shark Week better and better each year.

One of the Discovery Channel’s advisors helped create this amazing product

One of the Discovery Channel's advisors helped create this amazing  product

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WSM: Animal Planet, a Discovery Channel affiliate, has a successful show called Whale Wars that documents the actions of the activist group “Sea Shepherd”. Many conservationists and scientists believe that Sea Shepherd does much more harm to the environmental movement than good. By endangering the lives of whalers and shark finners, Sea Shepherd makes those people look like the victims. Their actions also make the general public associate caring about whales and sharks with being a fanatical zealot, making it harder for legitimate conservation groups to win public support. What do you think about this? Please see this blog post for more information.

PG:  There are so many ways to tell a conservation story.  I can’t answer for Animal Planet’s ‘Whale Wars’ but I asked the executive producer Jason Carey to weigh in on this one.  And here he does…

“Animal Planet’s seven-part series WHALE WARS broke new ground in wildlife filmmaking. In this first ever “conservation adventure series,” we tackled one of the most contentious stories in the wildlife world today. Both the Japanese and Sea Shepherds claim to have the law on their side and this built-in rivalry led to some of the most dramatic filmmaking ever captured in wildlife-related work. By taking an in-depth view into these characters who have committed their lives to saving whales, Animal Planet presented a fascinating view of animal conservation in the modern world. And by following the story of whale survival through this human lens, we were able to tell a story filled with an emotional depth that rarely comes across in wildlife filmmaking. Viewers have many different angles to approach the series, and I am confident that they are discerning enough to both enjoy the series as entertaining television and see the magnitude of the issues WHALE WARS portrays.

In fact, ‘Whale Wars’ has brought the issue of whaling back into the public debate.  While people may not agree with Sea Shepherd’s methods, ‘Whale Wars’ provides a platform for healthy dialogue about a very serious issue and lets viewers have a chance to see and decide for themselves.

What is happening to our oceans and its creatures is a big area of concern for our audience.  However, it’s important to note that this is not so much a journalistic enterprise or endeavor about the complex issues surrounding whaling as it is a character study on the members of an organization. The series shines a spotlight on what motivates these individuals to get involved in this issue and the lengths they’ll go through to take a stand in what they believe in.  The Sea Shepherd’s activities are damned by some and heralded by others.”

whale_wars_dvd

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WSM: During your career, you have likely heard many pitches for shows that never made it on the air. Can you tell us about some of them? What show would you most have liked to see go on the air, and why didn’t it make it?

PG: I spent most of my career as an independent producer, creating pitches of my own.  A LOT of them.  One of mine that did make it to air was a 1995 Discovery special called Eyes in the Sky about our new ability to remotely observe the Earth and compress time to see change, like the disappearance of the Amazon rain forest.

I’d like to tell you about the one show I’m working to get on the air, but I don’t want to give it away just yet.

Amazon deforestation, one of the features of “Eyes in the Sky”. Image from Earthblog

Amazon deforestation, one of the features of "Eyes in the  Sky". Image from Earthblog

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I really want to thank Paul and all the other Discovery Channel executives who took the time to answer my questions.

I said earlier that I would refrain from signing this petition denouncing the Discovery Channel until I heard their side of the story. After speaking with them and reading what they have to say, I am announcing that I am not signing this petition. As always, you are free to do what you want.

~WhySharksMatter

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My thoughts on Shark Week

August 19, 2009

I just finished watching Shark Week. Overall, while most premieres were not as bad as some of my colleagues claim, I was disappointed by the fearmongering and lack of conservation focus. The Discovery Channel can and should do better in the future.

Some general things that disappointed me included:

  • The “Shark Week” logo sometimes appeared to be dripping blood
  • The Ocean Conservancy “save the sharks” ad only appeared once per premiere (twice during the two-hour “Blood in the Water), and the ad itself didn’t do a good job of educating the public. It said that “together we can end shark finning”, but didn’t say what shark finning IS.
  • The pop-up ads at the bottom of the screen only once mentioned anything vaguely conservation related… during “Great White Appetite” it said “Learn all about the Great White Shark, log onto Discovery.com/Sharkweek”. Every other pop-up ad was either a plug for shark week merchandise or letting us know what show was on next. I distinctly remember pop-ups in past Shark Weeks saying things like “Learn how you can help sharks, log onto the website” or “Learn why sharks are important, log onto the website” and I am disappointed that this trend has stopped.

I must say that I was amused (though not from a shark conservation perspective)  by some of the ads.

  • I particularly liked how an ominous, dramatic voice announced that each “Shark Week premiere is presented by Febreeze fabric softener”.
  • I also liked the GI Joe tie-ins. For example “Every day sharks are in more danger of extinction. This summer, when the human race faces the same demise, they will count on one team to save them”.  In other words, a movie so bad that producers wouldn’t let critics see it in advance has more of a conservation message than half the shark week premieres.
  • Also, “A shark’s speed is one of it’s best weapons, but for the soldiers of GI Joe, it’s the Delta Six accelerator suit”. Excellent tie in.

That’s just awesome. I bought some Febreeze and will go see GI Joe right away.

And now, for a detailed review of each of the six Shark Week premieres:

Blood in the Water

By far the worst of the bunch (from both a conservation and entertainment perspective), Blood in the Water was a failed historical re-enactment of the 1916 shark attacks that inspired the movie “Jaws”. While the old-style bathing suits and cheesy dialogue were amusing for almost five minutes, this show really didn’t need to be two hours. It is a testament to my dedication to my readers that I watched the whole thing, because my roommates were begging me to turn it off because they were bored.

Some amazing quotes from this gem include:

  • “A new species of prey was entering their world- humans”. Yup, because no human ever went in the ocean before 1916.
  • “Today, we know that they’re BOTH capable of killing humans”. While accurate, this line of the narration was said right after the historical re-enactment shark scientist said that sharks were not that dangerous to humans. In other words, not only does this premier lack a conservation message, it actively mocks a conservation message. Score one for the Discovery Channel.
  • “The lifeguard pulled him away before it could finish feeding…the killer is probably still hungry”. There are several things wrong with this. Sharks don’t eat people. They sometimes bite people by mistake, but they almost always release the person when they realize that we aren’t food. Also, there is simply no way that a lifeguard could pull a person out of the jaws of a 14 foot great white if the shark really wanted to keep the person. I had trouble out-muscling the little three foot bonnethead in my picture on the sidebar, and that was on land.
  • “The full moon has made the creek saltier than ever” for a day or two, which supposedly allowed a great white to swim miles up a creek. I’m pretty sure tides don’t affect salinity for days at a time, and I’m pretty sure that great whites have never been documented inshore. It was probably a bull shark, though I wasn’t there.
  • “It’s primordial brain can’t resist a new, warmer target”. Actually, many sharks are scavengers that would prefer a meal that doesn’t involve so much work.
  • And by far my favorite line of Blood in the Water, something that has already become a running joke between me and my roommates…”Science has no comment”. Indeed.

Overall grade: F minus.

Deadly Waters

This was Survivorman Les Shroud’s attempt to chronicle the world’s deadliest waters and describe what makes them so deadly. At the very least, the production value was better, and it was not boring. There was even a strong conservation message… for coral reefs, not sharks.  The science content of this premiere was nothing short of spectacular (insert sarcasm here). He referenced the “warm, nutrient rich” waters of the Caribbean. Actually, tropical waters are relatively nutrient poor… that’s why they are so clear. Good job with the basic oceanography, though. Also, I particularly enjoyed the nurse shark on the screen while Shroud’s voice mentioned “diving with the deadliest animals in the South Pacific”.

Though this was a special about sharks attacking humans, they did a great job explaining what kinds of conditions contribute to these attacks (murky water, swimming alone, limited access to medical care,  how even “sample bites” can result in death, etc). However, at no point did Shroud say something like “Shark attacks are incredibly rare”. He did mention that 20,000 people a year visit the reefs of the South Pacific, and 125 people have been attacked there ever, but again the rarity of shark attacks wasn’t really stressed. They did mention that some shark attacks are considered “provoked”, but they didn’t describe what that means.

At one point, Shroud hand fed a large great white, which is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen a person do. He did note that the “shark did not care about the boat or the cage, only the tuna”.

Finally, I wonder how the parents of my SeaCamp shark biology students would react to learning that the waters off the coast of Florida are the deadliest waters on earth.

Overall grade: C minus.

Day of the Shark 2

By far the lamest title of this year, Day of the Shark 2 chronices a series of recent shark attacks, including interviews with survivors and witnesses. Though it had graphic images (recreations and old pictures) of shark attacks and wounds, the message that most of the survivors shared was not one of hatred towards the sharks.

Some quotes include:

  • “I’m certainly more respectful of sharks now”
  • “Let the sharks have the ocean that day. I’m aware that I’m sharing”
  • “I respect them. I was in their area. We’re trying to get the same food”
  • “I hold no grudge against the animal that attacked me. I really felt that the shark was just doing what sharks do”. (This last was from a young girl who wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up)

This show was primarily interviews and was very jumpy and disjointed, but it did have a conservation message presented by one of the dive operators interviewed. He is hoping to portray “sharks as ambassadors” and is “trying to get people to change their minds about sharks, not as monsters but as critical parts of marine ecosystems”.

Overall grade: C plus

Sharkbite Summer

This premiere chronicled the shark attacks of the summer of 2001, what Time magazine dubbed “the summer of the  shark”.  It was similar in style to Day of the Shark 2, but was more professionally edited. It also had a series of really, really stupid quotes.

  • “He’s fought off a 10 foot bull shark… and won!” I often fight things off and then lose, but that’s just me.
  • “I survived a shark attack and might not live to tell about it”. Review the definition of ‘survive’, friend.
  • “The shark was big and was totally underwater”. As opposed to the infamous air shark?
  • “The odds [i.e. shark attacks being unlikely] mean nothing when it happens to you in real life”. Actually, the odds haven’t really changed. A one in four million chance doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. Also, thanks again for not only not promoting conservation, but actively mocking conservation efforts.

Other parts of this cinematic masterpiece include the fact that three surfers were bitten in one day on the same beach. HOLY CRAP, CLOSE THE FREAKIN’ BEACH.

Also, my roommates tell me that I’m a bad person for making fun of the name of a shark attack victim, but seriously, who names their child “AveMaria”?

This special ended on kind of a high note… it noted that the “summer of the shark” was actually a below average year for shark attacks and claimed that “little changed that summer except for the way we told the stories and the impact that they had” and mentioned a “feeding frenzy of the media”. Seriously, Sharkbite Summer, are you actually criticizing sensationalist media coverage of shark attacks? Hey kettle… you’re looking a little black today.

Overall grade: D plus

Great White Appetite

This was an ecology-minded special (kind of) that tracked great whites around the world and documented what they eat and how they hunt. They did a series of “science” experiments (actually pretty solid except for the lack of repetition) to show what choices great whites make when hunting. It showed that given the choice, sharks prefer tuna or seals to people, which is kind of conservation-y I guess.

There were a couple of fearmongering quotes:

  • “What drives the great white’s appetite for destruction?”
  • “They attack first and ask questions later”

However, this show also had a strong conservation message:

  • “The great white is listed as ecologically vulnerable, and the world’s preeminent scientists are using new techniques…to help us to understand and preserve their habitat”. It then showed scientists using stable isotope analysis on great whites, which one of the world’s MOST preeminent shark scientists (ahem, me) uses on sandbar sharks.

This was also the first show so far that focused on interviews with shark scientists  (though Day of the Shark 2 had a brief interview with Neil Hammerschlag and Blood in the Water had a historical reenactment of a shark scientist).

My main problem with this movie, other than the few fearmongering quotes, was how it awkwardly jumped around between locations around the world. I seriously doubt that Charles Ingram really flew Australia to South Africa to Mexico to South Africa to Australia- this was probably just a weird editing job.

Overall grade: B

Shark after Dark

In his interview with me last month, Discovery Channel executive Paul Gasek stressed how this premiere was eco-friendly… and he was right! By far the best premiere of this year, Shark after Dark attempted to chronicle never-before-seen nocturnal behaviors of sharks around the world. It was fascinating and very well done. They observed great whites hunting at night for the first time… and if you think that breech feeding looks sweet during the day, check it out in night vision. They became some of the first few humans to interact with the normally deep-water sixgill shark using SCUBA gear by partnering with a dive operator who discovered that they feed at night by the surface, and talked about the importance of shark nurseries.

They even mentioned a specific threat to sharks- pollution of ocean waters- and how to stop it. They showed scientists taking biopsy plugs to run toxicology tests on.

Andy Dehart of the National Aquarium got a couple of GREAT conservation messages in there, including:

  • “It’s really important to learn as much as we can about these animals and their habitat…we have to protect it if we want these sharks to survive”.
  • “Hopefully diving with them and learning about them might help them to stick around another 200 million years”
  • “They know what to bite…humans are not on a shark’s menu, and they’re pretty good at reading the menu with or without light”

The worst part of this one was Andy Dehart’s horrible SCUBA diving technique. Honestly, dude, there is no such thing as a reverse giant stride entry, and TAKE YOUR FREAKING MASK OFF YOUR FOREHEAD when you talk to the camera. You’re making me want to jump in and rescue you.

Overall grade: A minus

Conclusions

I really wish that the Discovery Channel would focus more on conservation efforts and less on fearmongering. Living Ocean’s movie “Requiem”, National Geographic’s “Great White Odyssey”, and anything done by the BBC shows that eco-friendly programming can be entertaining and profitable. At the very least, I wish that the Discovery Channel would go back to putting conservation messages in their pop up ads. Their website has a lot of good conservation information, but you need to direct people to it more.

Again, though most shows were not as bad as my colleagues claimed, some were. I am very disappointed in the Discovery Channel, and I hope that they will do better next year. As always, I welcome your comments.

~WhySharksMatter

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Ten ways to make Shark Week better

October 23, 2009

Though I was not as critical as some of my colleagues, I was disappointed by this year’s “Shark Week“. Months after an IUCN report showed that 1/3 of oceanic shark species are in danger of extinction, several Shark Week specials promoted fear and not conservation.  I’ve never been one to criticize without offering suggestions for improvement, though. Here are a few ways that the Discovery Channel can do a better job next year. These suggestions are organized by how difficult they would be to implement, which is not necessarily how much of an impact they would have.

SharkWeekLogo

I would appreciate it if you guys would comment NOT on how likely you think these are to occur, but on how happy you would be if Discovery incorporated them. I want the Discovery Channel executives to see that we, the marine conservation community, can work with them in a positive way and not just criticize.

Easy fixes- Things that require very little change to Shark Week.

1) Conservation pop-ups! Throughout Shark Week, little text boxes pop up on the bottom of the screen. This doesn’t disrupt the show at all and doesn’t require the producers of the Shark Week documentary to do anything- it’s edited in later. This year, almost all of the pop-up boxes informed us what documentary was on next, or told us about merchandise sales on Discovery’s website. It would be extremely easy to add pop-up boxes with conservation messages. Discovery’s website has a lot of worthwhile shark conservation information, but viewers weren’t told that it was there. If every documentary had a pop-up box that said “Sharks are in trouble, find out why and how you can help, log onto Discovery.com/SharkWeek” this wouldn’t disrupt the show at all and it would certainly help.

2) Change the promos. Shark Week promos this year were simply ridiculous. You don’t need an ominous voice and letters dripping blood. People are interested in sharks without artificial hype. I guarantee you that the general public will be hooked if you show, for example, footage of graceful schooling hammerheads. Text without blood dripping from it and a narrator that doesn’t sound constipated would take some of the silliness away without making  viewers less interested in any way.

3) Improve the website. While the Shark Week website has a lot of good conservation information, very little of it is geared toward people who have never heard that sharks are important and in big trouble (i.e. most of the country).  It’s also somewhat confusingly organized. The website would benefit from an introductory page in the style of my “Four things everyone needs to know about sharks“- a brief introduction (for complete newcomers to the world of shark conservation) that says that sharks aren’t a major threat to humans, that they are economically and ecologically important, that they are in deep trouble, and that you can help. Heck, I’d be more than happy to just let you use my post rather than make a new one, as long as it’s properly attributed.

Slightly harder fixes- things that require a slight change to the documentaries and Shark Week itself.

1) Require that a scientist be interviewed. Most documentaries this year featured an interview from a shark scientist, but not all did. The public trusts scientists and would consider what we say. Even if the rest of the documentary was about sharks attacking humans, a 90 second clip from a shark scientist explaining that shark attacks aren’t very likely and that sharks are actually important to ecosystems (and in trouble) would go a long way.

2) Don’t openly mock science and conservation. Ideally all Shark Week documentaries should have a conservation focus, but barring that, they at least shouldn’t openly mock science and conservation. The historical reenactment scientist in “Blood in the Water” was presented as an idiot for claiming that shark attacks are rare, and an interviewed attack victim in Sharkbite Summer  said that all the statistics you hear about shark attacks being rare are meaningless when it happens to you.

3) Require a pro-conservation close. Some documentaries that focused on shark attacks ended by saying that “shark attacks are really rare, don’t worry”. Others didn’t. None of the attack-focused specials said anything about how sharks are crucial to ecosystems that humans depend on economically, or how some species are critically endangered. Even if the rest of the documentary focused on sharks attacking humans, at least including a couple of minutes of pro-conservation material at the end would provide some balance.

4) Get a better PSA. This year’s ocean conservancy PSA said that shark finning needed to be stopped, but didn’t say what shark finning IS or why it’s a threat or why sharks are important in the first place. As Andrew would say, this is “subpar at best”. If I were more cynical, I might echo my colleagues opinion that this stinks of wanting to appear like you’re trying to help without actually doing anything that will help.

Pretty hard fixes- Things that would require a great deal of work to incorporate into Shark Week.

1) Include at least one solidly pro-conservation documentary (ideally all the documentaries, but at least one would be good). There are LOTS of  conservation-minded shark documentaries and conservation-minded production companies out there. Work with them. Maybe when Shark Week first aired, the American public wasn’t in the mindset to appreciate conservation and environmentalism. Now they are. Look at how successful “An Inconvenient Truth” was and how many people drive Hybrids-people care about the environment more than ever before. You can capitalize on this. I’d be very surprised if pro-conservation documentaries reduced your viewership at all, and wouldn’t be surprised if they increased your viewership. I even have two recommendations for you of movies that are already made.

-The producers of Requiem, described by yours truly as the “best conservation-minded shark documentary” I’ve ever seen, have agreed to sell you the rights to their already-made documentary for HALF of your average shark week rate.

-The filmmaker behind “Island of the Great White Shark” has agreed to negotiate favorable terms for the Discovery Channel.

Both of these films are already made, are very entertaining, and are solidly pro-conservation.

2) Ditch the “Jaws and Claws” style shark attack specials. While I differ from my colleagues in that I don’t think that one shark attack special (if it includes how to avoid being attacked by sharks, a statement that shark attacks are rare, and a statement that sharks are actually important to humans and in trouble) is the end of the world. However, half of this year’s Shark Week was shark attack specials, some of them didn’t stress the rarity of a shark attack, and none mentioned that sharks are important to people and are in trouble. This is no good.

3) Don’t say anything completely ridiculous from a scientific perspective. This was most prevalent in “Blood in the Water”, which claimed that unusual moon activity led to a creek being extra salty for a couple of days, allowing a great white to swim up the creek and kill swimming children. There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start. It would be great to make sure that all of your facts are run by experts, but at least run them by college freshmen who have taken “Oceanography 101″.

Summary

Discovery Channel executives, I know that you are reading this because I sent it to you. I hope you’ll see that despite the outrage from some shark conservationists this year, we as a community are willing to work with you to make Shark Week better. Some of the suggestions here would be very easy to implement and could have a major impact. Others would require more work, but you have almost a year before the next “Shark Week”.

Shark Week is what first got me interested in sharks, and I haven’t missed one yet. That said, this year’s Shark Week could have and should have been better- less fearmongering, more science and conservation. As one of the world’s leading non-fiction entertainment companies, you reach a lot of people and can do a lot of good for an important and threatened group of animals. You know how to reach me if you have any questions- I remain happy to help in any way I can, and I remain cautiously optimistic that next year will be better.

Southern Fried Science readers, please join in the discussion here- which of these proposed changes would make you happiest?  Do you have other proposed changes to make?

~WhySharksMatter