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Discovery Channel’s Megalodon “Documentary”: The Future of Wildlife Television?

2013 August 13
by Shared by Steve Rust

On October 31, 1938, the morning after Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre players aired their infamous adaption the H.G. Welles novel War of the Worlds over the CBS radio network, the New York Times ran the following front page headline – “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.”

While the fear and anxiety provoked in viewers by last week’s opening night documentary for the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” entitled Megalodon: The Monster Shark that Lives, may not be on par with that provoked by the War of the Worlds Broadcast, the Megalodon documentary raises a number of concerns about the future of wildlife television, particularly as the number of species at risk continues to increase.


Although the Megalodon has been been extinct for millions of years, this documentary offers to take viewers on a search for a currently existing creature, claiming, “What you are witnessing are the actual events as they unfolded.” Using sophisticated digital imagery and highly manipulated handheld camera techniques and other staples of this new form of documentary filmmaking – used extensively by History channel and other networks for shows on paranormal and alien encounters – threatens to further distance viewers from actual environmental concerns.

It is easy to claim that viewers are savvy enough to know when they are being duped, the increasingly sophisticated technologies and techniques used for these programs is clearly making it harder for viewers to tell what is real and what is fake. The only disclaimer made in the program is a 3-second text disclaimer that appears on screen only at the very end of the program, something Daily Show host John Oliver points out in the video embedded below.

As a rough measure of the impact of the Megalodon show on viewers Discovery created an online poll giving viewers three options –

1) “YES! The evidence for Megalodon can’t be ignored. This monster shark lives.”

2) “MAYBE… 95 percent of our oceans remain unexplored, so it’s possible that Megalodon is still out there.”

3) “NO! The scientists are right: Megalodon went extinct 1.5 million years ago. (Thankfully!)”

As of today (8/13/2013), 29% of poll takers have selected option 1, 47% have selected option 2, and 24% (myself included) have selected option 3.

While not the most scientific of measures, the poll’s results are startling. What is particularly troubling is the wording of option 3, which reminds us that 76% of those taking the poll have implicitly decided that the scientists are wrong – something that should sound familiar to those following the global warming debate in the US and elsewhere.

Interestingly, the early version of the poll, as least the version shown on CNN in the days after the “documentary” aired last week, only gave respondents two options – either yes the shark exists or no it does not. And CNN reported that, even without the maybe option, 73% of respondents chose yes.

As a one-time event/stunt, the Megalodon documentary – and I insist on labeling it as such because it presents itself as a documentary or faux-documentary rather than a mockumentary (no hints of irony here) – may not be cause for alarm, however two things have me particularly worried about what the show signals for the future of “wildlife” programming.

First, the Megaladon docu is only the latest in a trend, one that includes the Animal Planet programs, Mermaids: The Body Found and its sequel, Mermaids: The New Evidence in addition the faux-historical, paranormal, and alien documentaries popping up across the mediascape. While we can all have a good laugh at Roger Corman’s (yes that Roger Corman), recent SyFy channel hit Sharknado, there’s something far more insidious about the faux-documentary format, particularly give the wildlife films’ already troubled history of constructed reality and what Derek Bouse calls “false intimacy”.

Second, and perhaps most important, is that the Megalodon documentary reached an estimated 4.8 million viewers, making it the highest rated show in Shark Week history. While these numbers still fall short of Discovery’s highest ever ratings – approximately 6 million viewers per episode for Planet Earth in 2007 – the popularity of the program is likely to encourage the network (and others like it) to continue this trend as such programs are significantly cheaper to produce than blue-chip wildlife films, particularly as CGI costs come down due to software advances.

Perhaps there’s little here to surprise anyone who’s followed the literature on wildlife and animal film and television over the past couple of decades but unlike the Dinosaur documentaries of the 1990s or other similar uses of CGI, there’s something deceitful in the Megalodon documentary that has raised the ire of numerous commentators over the past week. Yet while Discovery has had to go on the defensive you know those executives are plotting out the ratings and cost-benefit and likely have several more ideas in the works.


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