Quite a few people have observed that Shark Week has, well, “jumped the shark.” Apparently this idiom was coined when Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler) literally jumped over a shark in a 1977 episode of Happy Days, a move Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler again) repeats in a 2003 episode of Arrested Development.
Ironically, the phrase originally described gimmicks to keep TV viewer interest, though it later expanded to describe mainstreaming other phenomena. It’s ironic because the now 26-year-old Shark Week — the Discovery Channel’s week-long collection of shark documentaries (there’s even a Top 10 Shark-Jumping videos) – reeled in 21.4 million viewers last year alone.
So it’s not surprising that “What do you think of Shark Week?” is the third most common question I’m asked as a professional shark scientist. And the answer is complicated. (The second most common question I’m asked, by the way, is “How did you get interested in studying sharks?”)
At its best, Shark Week educates people about the most misunderstood animals on our planet while inspiring them to protect the ocean. At its worst, it perpetuates fear and misunderstanding. And as you might expect, this year was a mixed bag.
The Worst of Shark Week 2013
Many Shark Week documentaries focus on so-called “shark attacks.” I say so-called because the world’s largest professional organization of shark scientists, the American Elasmobranch Society, has urged media style guides to retire that phrase in favor of more accurate and less inflammatory wording scaled to represent real risk and outcomes.
The word “attacks” makes people think these incidents occur much more than they actually do: The average American is about a million times more likely to die from a heart attack than a shark attack. The disproportional perception isn’t just an insider concern; it leads to hard policy and funding realities when it comes to supporting shark conservation and management. (Sharks are ecologically and economically important animals, and due to decades of overfishing, many species have suffered severe population declines.)
The absolute worst of Shark Week, however, didn’t just sensationalize reality: it mockumentary-ized it in “Megalodon: The Monster Lives using fake experts and videos. Many folks — including me, Wil Wheaton, and the Daily Show — reacted strongly because there is not a shred of evidence that megalodons are still around and the show aired in the context of an educational TV channel with only brief, vague disclaimers.
“Voodoo Sharks,” on the other hand, had a lot of potential. If it had focused on the actual bull shark research that made a brief appearance in the show, it could have been pretty good. Instead, the producers chose to focus on a mythical giant shark and the team of local fishermen trying to catch it. The scientists were doing actual research on local shark species so they didn’t find the shark — probably because it does not exist.
To make matters worse, the show presented contrived social media asks viewers to tweet their support for #TeamScientist or #TeamCajun. Ugh.
And then of course there were plenty of specials focusing on sharks biting people. While I have to give “Top 10 Sharkdown” credit for incorporating shark species other than great whites and bulls, it says a lot about how ridiculous these types of documentaries are that half of the billed “10 deadliest species of sharks” have never been associated with a single human fatality.
Oh and let’s talk about “Great White Serial Killer”, which teased us with “Two attacks at the same beach. Two years apart. Has a shark turned into a serial killer?” (Um, maybe there’s more than one animal involved?) An interviewee on the show — who is not a scientist – observes that “This can’t be a coincidence” while the narrator noted “It isn’t a frivolous comparison to call a shark a serial killer.” I’d encourage the producers of this show to look up the definitions of “coincidence” and “frivolous.”
In this attack category, however, there was one very balanced documentary: “I Escaped Jaws.” It focused on how lots of shark bites are the result of preventable mistakes by people, and the victims interviewed in the show discussed how they don’t blame the sharks and do support shark conservation. The documentary also used actual footage of the sharks biting people instead of hokey re-enactments.
Still, if I had my druthers, these types of attack documentaries wouldn’t air.
The Best of Shark Week 2013
From the standpoint of public science literacy and conservation awareness, there are advantages to Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. For one thing, it leads to increased public discussion about sharks — which scientists and conservationists can use as education opportunities, to inject facts. (Not all social media is a contrived. When it came to these discussions, I had the opportunity to inject facts into heightened conversations via my Twitter and Facebook accounts as well participate in a Reddit IAmA).
Shark Week 2013 also had, for the first time, a live talk show — “Shark After Dark” — every evening. It featured guests from some of the documentaries; a shark trivia contest where the loser had to do tequila shots (there were other drinking games during Shark Week too); and one of the stars of Syfy’s Sharknado rambling incoherently and therefore entertainingly about whale sharks. This show was another example where social media was incorporated in a useful, not contrived way, since it took live questions via Twitter.
A pleasant surprise was David Hasselhoff singing a song he’d written about Shark Week:
There was also quality educational programming. “Return of Jaws” focused on the research that Dr. Greg Skomal is doing tracking great white sharks in New England. “Spawn of Jaws” focused on Dr. Michael Domeier’s continuing efforts to track great white sharks and determine where they breed — information that’s important for improving species conservation.
“Alien Sharks of the Deep,” which focused on some of the amazing biodiversity associated with the deep sea, was one of the best natural history documentaries I’ve ever seen. I squealed (my dog actually came over to make sure I was ok) when they showed certain rare and exotic species like frilled sharks and the elusive megamouth:
Such documentaries are not just fact-based and science-focused, but they convey important information — entertainingly. That’s what responsible and interesting science communication should be, and it represents what Shark Week used to be … and what it can be again.
(By the way, the Shark Week often leads to the #1 most common question I’m always asked: “Have you ever been bitten by a shark?” For the record, I have not.)