Can a former Disney executive undo the damage to a cable network’s reputation caused by an extinct shark? That’s the promise of new leadership at the Discovery Channel, which for the past two years has substituted fiction for fact during Shark Week and hurt both itself and the public in the process.
Discovery Channel president Rich Ross knows that Shark Week is an institution for the network he was hired to run last fall. “People love being part of it,” he told me, because it “had a sense of timelessness that is pretty rare in the world of entertainment” and is “a great celebratory manifestation of what the network stood for, stands for, what is most loved about it.”
The love that Discovery Channel built over 25 years of the summer programming stunt was challenged two years ago when it aired Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. Presented as a nonfiction documentary about a prehistoric shark that was still alive, it was actually fiction. Most didn’t notice a disclaimer that flashed by in the credits, the only admission that the program had “dramatized” people and events, though its coy phrasing insisted “there is still debate.”
There is no debate. The shark has been extinct for millions of years. Yet Discovery opted to pretend — on television, on social media, on its website — that there is still a question about the existence of a long-dead shark. “Discovery Channel betrayed that trust during its biggest viewing week of the year,” actor and blogger Wil Wheaton wrote at the time. “That is disgusting, and whoever made that decision should be ashamed.” Last year, a Discover magazine (no relation to Discovery Communications) blogger called the network out on its “fraud, deception and lies.” The network’s most visible and vocal critic was shark researcher and PhD student David Shiffman. “They burned a lot of bridges in the scientific community and in the ocean conservation community by the way they misrepresent research and misrepresent sharks,” he said. “I think those relationships can be repaired, but it’s going to take time.”
Last fall, the executive who led the channel during the two previous Shark Weeks, Eileen O’Neill, exited. Her replacement, Rich Ross, made it unconditionally clear just three days after he started his new job that Discovery would no longer broadcast fake documentaries, declaring them unfit for the network. “I think fiction, as long as fiction is identified as fiction, can be possible. But it’s not fiction presented as nonfiction,” he told me. “There is an absolute drive and desire in the consumer marketplace for authentic storytelling, nonfiction that’s actually nonfiction.”
At the time, Discovery’s executives doubled down. Last year it aired another misleading documentary about Megalodon and Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine, which used actors portraying marine biologists. Far worse, however, was that other shows used interviews with real scientists to create fiction — in 2013 and 2014 Shark Week aired Monster Hammerhead and Voodoo Sharks. Scientists interviewed for both — including a Shedd Aquarium hammerhead researcher — later revealed that their words were taken out of context. Both shows were produced by Gurney Productions, the company behind Duck Dynasty, the A&E series starring real people who act out fake scenarios but pretend they’re real.
Discovery’s reputation was built over several decades. It is the flagship network of Discovery Communications, which has massive reach that exceeds every other pay television provider: almost 3 billion subscribers around the world. In the U.S. that includes networks as diverse as Animal Planet and TLC, which do not have the same reputation as Discovery itself. The parent company’s mission statement says it is “dedicated to satisfying curiosity and entertaining viewers with high-quality content through its global television brands.” Its mission also notes that it “is a leading provider of educational products and services to schools.”
Balancing entertainment with education is not easy, and viewers don’t want to be lectured. For sure, Discovery also aired many respectable, factual, entertaining documentaries both summers. But attention to Megalodon drowned out the others because it damaged the public’s trust. Shark Week returns this Sunday, July 5 (after a ratings dip last year), and is now being overseen by Discovery vice-president of documentaries and specials Howard Swartz. Can it reverse what was started in the last few years?
“We’ve made it very clear to the production companies that we’re not in the business of making stuff up and we’re not in the business of misrepresenting the great work that the science community and the research community are doing,” Swartz said. “I’ve let every scientist that I’ve talked to know that, if they have a question about it or they have any kind of discomfort about anything, they can call me any time they want. We’ll make sure that they’re being portrayed accurately.”
When people watch Shark Week, Ross said, “I want people to look at it this year and say, ‘These people have not been co-opted.’ They’ve contributed their work and we know they’re scientists who work in specifics. … We all share the same goal now, and that is to be able to entertain our viewers with creatures that are extraordinary.”
Even if the network repairs the damage and turns away from deception, there is still a perpetual balancing act ahead for Shark Week — and for all who hope to make reality engaging. Discovery’s information, Ross said, “still has to come in an entertaining showcase. We’re a TV network. That’s what we do.”