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Shark Week and the Demise of Wildlife Television

2014 August 16
by Steve Rust

The Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week has once again broken ratings records, bringing millions of viewers to the wildlife television genre. However, as another Shark Week comes and goes there continue to be disturbing signs that the future of high quality wildlife filmmaking is under threat from cheaper, thrill-based programming.

As the number crunchers at the website TV by the Numbers points out: Shark Week 2014 continues its TV domination this week (8/10/14-8/11/14) with Discovery currently ranking as the #1 primetime network in all of television* among M18-49 and P/M/W18-34 delivery – beating out all other broadcast and cable networks in these key demos. Discovery’s also earned its highest-rated Shark Week Monday ever in key demos during Prime Time with a 1.81 P25-54 rating, delivering 3.210 million viewers (Persons 2+).

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But as I discussed a year ago in a post on Discovery’s fake documentary program on the extinct Megaladon shark, Shark Week continues to be characterized by overdramatization, half-truths, and flat out false information. In a trend that has plagued the wildlife film and television genre from the earliest days of cinema, entertainment is coming at the expense of education. With the transition to computer generated images becoming cheaper, Discovery’s tactics are becoming more seductive and seemless. And while I personally have no problem with films like Sharknado 2, which are clearly packaged and promoted as entertainment, Discovery’s continued efforts to push the limits of the documentary mode are disturbing indeed.

For a more complete discussion of this topic, I highly recommend Oregonian reporter Grant Butler’s recent article, “Shark Week’s Dark Side: After Fake Documentary Controversy, Discovery Doubles Down on It’s Own Lies.” Butler interviews, Chris Palmer, a wildlife filmmaker and author of Shooting in the Wild, who runs the environmental filmmaking program at American University.

While Palmer, points to plenty of good science showcased in Shark Week documentaries, including works by filmmakers Jeff Kurr and Andy Casagrande, who have new programs in this year’s lineup he also pins blame for the shift taking place in the genre squarely at the Discover Channel:

“The network will say that their programming is driven by their audience,” he says. “I don’t know what’s more distressing, the fact that the network produces these sensational, inaccurate shows, or whether the public demands them. But I hold the network responsible. They have the ability to produce responsible, exciting films, and they have to set the lead on this.”

One Response leave one →
  1. smonani permalink*
    August 31, 2014

    Here’s a bit more from Chris Palmer, check out his story on NPR: http://www.npr.org/2014/08/30/344562317/when-wildlife-documentaries-jump-the-shark.

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