Why “Jumping the Shark” Matters for Science Programming

A real, live shark. Original image: Carcharhinus-amblyrynchos.jpg by Fbattail at fr.wikipedia, March 14, 2004

The Discovery Channel is a commercial network that, like all networks, functions to make money.  It does this, like all commercial networks, by selling airtime to advertisers who hope you will watch the shows and, as a consequence, have a seed planted in your head to buy their products.  There is nothing necessarily “evil” or “wrong” about this — this is capitalism, and this is the mechanism by which we have been getting our TV shows for a very long time.

Shark Week is perhaps the most famous and certainly biggest money maker for Discovery that continues to draw many, many viewers that advertisers hope will come in droves to buy whatever it is they make and sell.  People like sharks.  I like sharks — they are so fascinating that I actually published a paper with a former undergraduate on tail growth in spiny dogfish!

And I have to believe that at some level or another, one of the positive byproducts of Shark Week and many of Discovery’s shows (including Mythbusters, which I simply can’t get enough of) has been to get the lay public and children interested in the natural world and the role that science plays in helping us understand that world.  I also believe many of the people who work for and create programs for Discovery have education as a goal in mind, if not just the bottom line.

This said, I, like many of my colleagues who are biologists and paleontologists, were disappointed and disheartened to see the new “mockumentary” Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives  In some ways this is not a surprising development for Discovery, because it has previously aired the ridiculous but equally “convincing” Mermaids: The Body Found.  But this is all good fun, right?  It’s all entertainment, what’s the harm?

When Fonzie literally jumped a shark on the classic television program Happy Days, that was when the audience knew the producers were out of ideas and were getting desperate  for ratings.  Many have now made that same comparison with Discovery’s Shark Week — except this time they “jumped” a prehistoric shark but probably for similar reasons.  But again, so what, the Discovery network can do what it wants — it’s commercial and you tune in to tune out, so to speak.

I wish it were that simple.  I wish I could simply shrug this off as “edutainment,” but the sad part is that I cannot.  Because what Discovery has basically done is told us that profits can only be made by selling to the least common denominator, and that the real world is too “boring” for anyone to care.  In essence, despite the always heightened interest and excitement that the public and children have for these magnificent ocean predators, that just isn’t enough.  It’s not enough that sharks rank among the most intelligent of the “fishes,” or that their lineage goes back over 400 million years, or that many of their prehistoric ancestors were unbelievably beautiful, interesting, and, most of all, real.  Nope.  None of that is enough to draw viewers and make a profit.  Only by making up fake stories about sharks will anyone pay attention.  Their fake, still-living Megalodon is better than real natural history and real sharks.

Discovery, by airing this show, not only has suggested as a network that its watchers are too ignorant to want real information, but has denigrated the process of real science.  Paleontology in particular is presented as an almost purely speculative, armchair discipline.  In essence, Discovery is telling its audience, “Hey, you know those stuffy ivory tower Ph.D.s, they’re no fun, and anyways paleontology involves looking at fragments of dead things and making up what sounds best.”  As my colleagues and I can attest, if this is what paleontology were, none of us would be the least bit interested in doing it.  Paleontology is as much a science as physics, involving the testing of hypotheses against real-world data and admitting where we don’t have all the answers.

Here is how sad this whole thing is for scientists like myself.  We know the fossil record, we know our biology, and we know this “stuff” because we have special training.  That Ph.D. we have?  Yeah, it means we’re experts.  Not geniuses, not the all-knowing-all-powerful Oz, but experts in what we do.  If you are going into heart surgery, you want the heart surgeon expert — you don’t want some guy or gal who happens to have seen lots of pretty heart pictures and says, “Psh, this supposed doctor of yours says this is risky — not if I did it!” or “But what do they really know?  Stuffy doctors haven’t seen this really cool heart picture.”  That would be downright ludicrous, and yet my colleagues and I are as qualified to tell you about fossils and their biological implications as that medical doctor is to fix your heart.  Because we are experts — we took the time and discipline to get specialized training that you don’t have.

So, you have a paleontologist with a Ph.D., and they say, “Based on all available sources of data, there is good reason to doubt that Megalodon is still swimming in our modern oceans.”  And then typically data follow — pieces of real information based on fossils, biology, oceanography, and so forth.  To suggest instead that an appropriate and equally valid response to this is, “You know, the ocean is really freakin’ big and who knows what’s really still out there?” is disheartening and a sad commentary on what Discovery thinks of its viewers … let alone the scientists!

What to do?  Well, since Discovery is a commercial network, if one were seriously angry they could speak with their wallet.  That is, you stop watching that network but more importantly stop buying products sold on that channel.  Any business wants the money to keep flowing in … if you hit them in their wallet, they are sometimes more willing to listen.  You could contact as many of the makers of the product that is being sold on Discovery and tell them you refuse to buy their product unless they pull advertising from the Discovery channel.

Am I going to forgo watching Discovery and stop buying what is sold on that channel?  No.  Part of the reason I will continue to watch Discovery is that my students, my family, and my friends watch it, and since it is a popular medium for science, it’s good for me to remain aware of what is airing to at least field questions.  And I will admit, I love Mythbusters, and I selfishly want to keep watching that.

But perhaps the better approach is to show Discovery how much more money they stand to make if they air real, intelligent science shows and documentaries.  I don’t tune in to the Daily Show to get my news, nor do I expect that I get it unbiased.  I tune in for laughs.  Discovery, if that’s what you want, if you want to go the way of the History Channel and give us Ancient Aliens, then by all means keep making “mockumentaries” about mermaids, sharks, and whatever else.  Even we “elite” academics will tune and laugh at how thoroughly terrible those shows are.  But we won’t tune in as often.  And we’ll tell our students your network is not to be trusted.  In fact, I would even point out that Wikipedia science entries often have more to offer than shows like your fake shark.

But I promise, if you make good, quality programming, people pay for that.  Well-produced science programs are purchased by libraries, are shown in classrooms where students say, “hmm, I might check out this channel some more,” and you get a more sophisticated audience … many of which will purchase sophisticated goods sold by your advertisers.  And it’s easier to make this kind of money, I would suspect, than making up dumb stuff like “found footage” of an imagined mega-shark.  Think about it — like reality shows, the scientific reality and the scientists are already there!  It writes itself!  And people will watch, and become more educated in the process.

If you stop pandering to the lowest common denominator and instead focus on making quality science programs, I suspect your bottom line will do very, very well.  Ultimately, Discovery, you and your producers are experts at making what can be quite interesting, educational, and entertaining, high-quality programming.  Imagine putting that creativity together with other experts who know what they’re talking about and with all the amazing nature our planet has to offer.

Original image: Carcharhinus-amblyrynchos.jpg by Fbattail at fr.wikipedia, March 14, 2004

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6 thoughts on “Why “Jumping the Shark” Matters for Science Programming

  1. Well said. A similar angle to take with Discovery’s mockumentary approach is that they could be The Best, and at one time were pretty darn good if not great, at making some nature documentaries that inspired people (like me) with real science and nature. What they are showing us is not the best, not by a long shot. Aren’t they involving some of the best writers, producers and camera-people in making their shows? Why not aim for best? (I know the answer is $$, but I am sure there is quality nature documentary-making that is still profitable! They have just chosen the low road.) I think criticizing them for their string of recent failures is very important, but also a positive tack of reminding them/the public of how good nature documentaries can be is important, and that there is still potential for Discovery to turn its ship around. But I for one won’t be watching them until they do.

    • Hi John — thanks! I very much agree with you too: they have the wherewithal to make good or great programming, but there’s always the lure of the low road. I think for Discovery, it’s short term gain, long term loss.

  2. I think the Discovery production is a “fakumentary”. From usage I’ve searched, “mockumentary” applies to mock documentaries that are done for satiric comic effect. I’d be much happier if “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” was a satire of the kind of fake cable crap about mermaids and ancient aliens. Sadly, this fakumentary is meant to be seen and believed, with only a brief couple of seconds of fine print to indicate otherwise.

    • Yes, I would agree that perhaps “fakumentary” is the more appropriate term. =) I still believe Discovery is best served if they stick to making great, factual documentaries and shows about the real, natural world or how science works. Leave the science fiction for another channel.

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  4. Pingback: Saturday Supplemental: the Old Ways of Great Documentaries | The Library of Alexander

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