Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is as terrible as it is wonderful. The television event is the longest running in cable history and shows no signs of slowing. Every year, viewers are assaulted with a variety of programs that give insight into some of nature’s most magnificent creatures. Unfortunately, Shark Week’s marketing and most of their programming will prey upon humanity’s fear and misunderstanding of shark behavior. It’s telling that this year’s block of shows has tied itself in with the recent horror film, The Shallows.
Naturally, Shark Week supporters and contributors will argue that the event is a big boon to shark research and conservation. While that’s obviously true, it’s also hard to swallow that pill when you hear some of the shadier things that Shark Week has engaged in; reports of biologists being misled by producers or when Discovery releases tripe like the infamous debacle that was Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. Remember that? It was the one that Discovery passed off as a genuine scientific expedition in search of a prehistoric shark, but in reality was a completely staged affair with no strong indication that it was fake?
It’s hard to deny our primal unease when it comes to sharks. These creatures have been inhabiting our oceans for over four-hundred million years, and their prehistoric nature is both alien and familiar to us. If there is one thing our lizard brains understand it’s teeth. However, sharks are not all as vicious as Shark Week would lead you to believe. Discovery Channel’s event mainly focuses on the apex predators of the shark family, but there are over five-hundred species of sharks and most of them pose no danger to humans at all. It’s a shame that audiences would be less enticed by docile sharks such as the epaulette shark or the basking shark, both of which are fascinating in their own right. If you’re looking for a much more objective documentary on sharks, I highly recommend the BBC series simply titled Shark.
At this point, I feel that I need to come clean with how I became so interested in sharks and shark conservation because it will purposefully taint my criticisms of Shark Week. My all-time favorite film is Jaws, and it was that movie that set me down the path of devouring everything I could about sharks. Jaws is even more knowingly sensationalized than anything Shark Week will offer, but it made me gain a tremendous respect and admiration for this awesome animal. Growing up, I eagerly awaited Shark Week every year. Even as a young child, I was able to wade through the misleading material and discover the enlightening information that Discovery Channel’s event had to offer. Eventually, I was lucky enough to have my name used for a character in one of the Meg series of novels by Steve Alten, thereby contributing to a culture that emphasizes the predatory nature of sharks.
All of this is to say that Shark Week’s tactic of playing up the vicious elements of sharks doesn’t necessarily mean that many viewers won’t walk away with a better understanding of these gorgeous animals. Sure, there’s going to be programs that are garbage — one named Wrath of a Great White Serial Killer sounds particularly odious this year — but there will also be ones that stress conservation and unintrusive research. For better or worse, Shark Week keeps sharks in the public’s eye and helps make younger viewers aware of these fantastic beasts. I just wish they didn’t have to use fear to do so.