The Ethics of Why You Should Definitely Watch Shark Week
I do not want to write this article. I would rather keep watching Shark Week. Unlike the rest of you plebes who can only swallow your shark tales in the three-hour nightly chunks allotted by the Discovery Channel’s prime time schedule, I have been gorging nearly nonstop, because I have access to a password-protected collection of Shark Week 2016 screeners. I’ve seen sharks fighting crocodiles, sharks that jump out off water, sharks jostling steel cages, sharks gnashing at underwater cameras, shark-attack victims whose legs and torsos look like burst sausages. I do not want to stop.
But because my binge on the company dime was conditional—write whether Shark Week is worth watching again, for its 29th annual broadcast—here I am, here’s this article, here’s my take: Shark Week is rad, you should all watch Shark Week.
Yes, it still gets some science wrong. And it obsesses over the few species of shark known to have attacked humans (the glamour species: great white, bull, tiger). It consistently frames sharks in terms of their relationship to humans, which makes sharks consistently scary. It has, in the recent past, aired fake documentaries, aired more fake documentaries, and been accused of misleading experts in order to get them to appear on screen in their fake documentaries. Gulp all that down, but watch anyway.
I kicked off Shark Week 2016 with a documentary titled Wrath of a Great White Serial Killer. It is a detective story, complete with over-punctuated noir voiceover. Brandon McMillan (host of CBS’s Emmy Award-winning Lucky Dog) is following a trail of clues to find the 15-foot long great white that bit his pal Kenny Doudt off the Oregon Coast back in ’79. He suspects the same shark may have perpetrated other attacks, from California to Washington, in the decades since. And because he is apparently unable to consider alternative hypotheses (more shark attacks because more people in the water, perhaps? Warmer ocean temperatures due to climate change, maybe?), McMillan dives headfirst down the serial killer shark rabbit hole.
Whatever. McMillan’s research question is essentially ‘Why are great whites migrating so far north,’ and his confirmation bias leads him straight to an explainer on Bergmann’s Rule (though his documentary never mentions the 160-plus year old ecological concept by name). Bergmann’s Rule posits that larger animals typically live in colder climates. (Larger bodies are better at conserving heat, and large-bodied prey attract large-bodied predators, circle of life, etc.) I file Bergmann’s Rule under “Interesting Things I Learned About in Undergrad But Are Too Boring to Write a Story About.” But McMillan pulls it off, taking his serial killer shark hypothesis1 from expert to expert. Each of whom walks him through a nibble of relevant ecology, biology, or geography to explain why large specimens of great white sharks are patrolling Oregon’s chilly waters. Spoiler: He does not find his serial shark. But his Columbo act does uncover tantalizing evidence that big, northern sharks need to eat big elephant seals, and even whales.
Science and sensationalism
The serial killer shark trope is a throwback to Jaws, and a free square on the Shark Week bingo card. It is an outgrowth of the most persistent theme of Shark Week programming—and the biggest gripe among Shark Week critics: Shark Week casts sharks as objects of fear.
Here’s a selection of documentary titles from the 2016 line-up:
- Tiger Beach
- Return of the Monster Mako
- Sharks Among Us
- Air Jaws: Night Stalker
- Jungle Shark
- The Killing Games
The first Shark Week documentary ever, in 1988, was called Caged in Fear. In 1994, the host of Shark Week was the guy who literally wrote the book on terrifying murder sharks: Peter Benchley, author of Jaws. McMillan’s Wrath of a Great White Serial Killer is the third in a series.
This sensationalist streak has always rubbed against Shark Week’s implicit mission, to promote conservation and dispel harmful myths about sharks. Some shows resist the temptation to purr about razor blade mouths and killer instincts. Blue Serengeti is a straightforward documentary comparing Pacific Ocean migratory patterns to the seasonal cycles of Africa’s most famous ecosystem, with great whites filling the role of the lion. At the other end of the spectrum, Shark Week producers treat scientific facts about the the true danger of sharks like annoying frictional caveats impeding the velocity of their programmatic horror. Or they just ignore facts altogether for doc-u-mockeries like Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.
“In general, there is something really feeble in the way Shark Week addresses the danger sharks present to humans,” says Sean Van Sommeran, director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz. “It gets mentioned here and there, and then they go right back to the Jaws music.” What he means is, sharks pose practically no danger to humans.
You probably know that, but just for fun let’s go through a quick list of things that will probably kill you before a shark: bees, cars, guns, sugar, fire, too much sunshine, too much pork, too much booze, too much cocaine, unprotected sex, falling down a staircase, getting old. Statistically, you are more likely to commit suicide than be eaten by a shark.2
A great white shark near the Farallon Island in the San Francisco Bay.
But who cares? Sharks are really fucking scary.3 Perhaps primordially so. All those actuarial truths “can’t compare to the paranoias we have about sharks, snakes, and spiders, because those are evolutionary relevant,” says Peter Boghossian,4 a philosopher from Portland State University. He is referring to a hypothesis put forth by psychologist Bruce Hood, that humans are hardwired to fear things like snakes, spiders, and anything big and snarly because those kinds of things were existential risks for all but maybe the last few dozen generations of your ancestors.
All that, plus the whole Jaws cultural baggage, and you can see why a lot of biologists and science fans accuse Shark Week of taking advantage of human fear of sharks in order to sell ads. This goes beyond the maneater trope. Shark Week also commits a sin of omission by focusing on the few species (Great white, tiger, bull) proven to have attacked humans, plus a few others that look the part (hammerhead, thresher, mako), with the occassional bone thrown to oddball species like the megamouth and goblin shark (Alien Sharks) “Everyone always forgets the 500 other species that aren’t ever going to bite a swimmer,” says van Sommeran. He likens the conflation of shark to predator to the nuance associated with “cat.” Lions, tigers, and cougars (oh my) collectively kill hundreds more people each year than the few species of sharks. Still, people call the different killers by name, and differentiate them from the domesticated creature that eats chicken-flavored pebbles out of a bowl.
Shark Week is hugely influential. Rich Ross, Discovery Channel’s president, told me he believes Shark Week’s huge cultural influence is at least partially responsible for things like a congressional bill aiming to ban shark finning in the US. (A few years ago, a nine-year-old kid was so inspired by Shark Week that he wrote to his congressman, and that congressman wrote a bill that became a law banning shark finning in the state of Massachusetts.)
But Shark Week’s influence chomps both ways. Last year, shark researcher David Shiffman wrote an extensive explanation of why the Discovery Channel’s portrayal of sharks matters for both science and conservation. Besides providing statistics that prove the obvious—that most media coverage of sharks is negative—he cites psychological research that indicates viewers’ opinions (or fear, really) of sharks can be influenced by things they have immediately seen on screen. He says people who are scared of sharks are less likely to support conservation efforts (reminder: Conservation is one of Shark Week’s primary goals). Shark Week draws a larger annual audience than any other ocean science-related show, and therefore presents the best opportunity for promoting responsible shark science.5 So much for dispelling harmful myths.
Given all that, why the hell watch Shark Week?
“Shark Week is a national holiday,” says Ross. And he’s right. Like the rest of the American pop-cultural pantheon (Super Bowl, Academy Awards, the serialized cable drama du jour), Shark Week is a relatively straightforward idea draped with significance—spooky music, ominous voiceovers, X-Files title fonts—in order to sell a shit-ton of ads.6
And maybe you are cynical about the pageantry, but you should pay attention about the packaging used to sell it. If you care about concussions, you should watch the Super Bowl and offer critiques to the NFL and its broadcast partners about the way they glamorize full contact play. If you care about diversity in Hollywood, you should pay attention to the lack of color in the Oscars.
Like pro football, like the Oscars, Discovery Channel is an entity out to turn a buck. And part of that buck turning is fulfilling the contract with its viewers for what is acceptable programming. After some major blowback from viewers following the Megalodon doc-u-mockeries (which did record numbers, by the way), and a 2013 fiasco called Voodoo Shark, where producers misled scientists in order to get them to lend their authority to a snark hunt for a mythical Cajun bull shark, Discovery dialed things back. In 2014, incoming new president Ross swore off the fake docs (though he has not responded to an open letter from David Shiffman requesting that Discovery Channel dial back the sensationalism).
And this year’s fare is a marked improvement from years past, an indication that Discovery is responding to criticism from the science crowd. “Shark week has taken a sharp turn in last two years, and has been making educational documentaries,” says Craig O’Connell, a shark biologist who hosts two Shark Week programs exploring how sharks use their electromagnetically-sensing organs7 to navigate and sense prey.
Next year’s Shark Week is already halfway greenlit. Still, you have plenty of time to give the network your input. Most of this year’s Shark Week offerings have solid scientific and conservation foundations. The most problematic aspects are the ways the show are framed, titled, narrated, or scored. In other words, stuff that can be fixed in post-production. You should watch Shark Week so you can help the series navigate toward science, and not sensationalism.
But you should also watch Shark Week because sharks are naturally sensational, and Shark Week shows sharks at their raddest (Air Jaws, anyone?). And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to spin up my screener password to watch Sharks Among Us. Again.
1 Once again, highly unlikely.
2 Of course, those risk statistics are skewed by demographics and geography—people who decide to go in the ocean, and which stretch of coastline they enter. In the future, when big data reaches a singularity with our daily lives, insurance companies might outfit us with GPS tracking bands that quantify our shark attack risk in real time and adjust our deductables accordingly.
4 Disclosure: Boghossian was my philosophy professor in college. I was confused about why I was so drawn to watch these Shark Week documentaries even while knowing how sensationalized they were, so I called him to help sort it out. Boghossian is one of those professors who gets so worked up discussing Socratic interrogations that he has to call breaks so he can run to the bathroom and change from his sweat-soaked shirt into a dry one.
5 Which I assume you care about, if you’ve read this far. Sharks are apex predators, which means they keep populations of creatures lower on the food chain in check. Without sharks, sea lions might proliferate like Ohio deer and overeat anchovies, causing the commercial fishery to collapse, leading to massive unemployment in your pleasant coastal communities. Families will fall apart, drug use will skyrocket, and your 15-year-old cousin will get knocked up by some skeevy, out of work deckhand. When they run away together, they will leave you to take care of the baby. Kid grows up and has to work in one of those stores selling overpriced board shorts and decorative seashell mobiles. I’m just spitballing here. The butterfly effect is unpredictable.
6 Discovery Channel would not give me exact numbers, but in 2015 Shark Week brought in an average of 2.562 million viewers. In the 18-49 age group, it rated 1.36. Those are great numbers for something on cable.
7 These organs are called the Ampullae of Lorenzini, which sounds like an artifact you’d discover on the 15th dungeon level of Diablo.