National Geographic

It Came From Basic Cable

On Sunday, Discovery kicked off Shark Week with a hoax. Not content to just play up sharks as serial killers in the annual extravaganza of blood, hokey reenactments, and menacing fins, the basic cable channel did their best at trying to fool viewers into believing that the 50 foot long, hypercarnivorous shark Carcharocles megalodonknown only from a fossil record that fizzles out in the 4-2 million year range – is still gobbling whales and prowling the modern seas. The stunt irritated viewers who quickly saw through the bad cgi and manufactured drama of the show, and the response was sharp enough that Michael Sorensen, executive producer of Shark Week, defended the show with a feeble bite back at critics.

Discovery built its reputation with science programming. Shark Week was always a high point. There was no part of the summer I looked forward to more. As a kid, I was hooked by shows that gave shark experts such as Eugenie Clark, John McCosker, and Samuel Gruber full attention as the researchers rhapsodized about the selachian subjects of their scientific fascination. I was so addicted that if I was going to be away from the VCR while Shark Week was on, I’d beg my friends to tape as many programs as they could stand so I could catch up on the shark marathon when I got home. But now Discovery is a joke, with the megalodon fiasco only being a confirmation of what has been clear for some time.

Frustrating as the program was, the megalodon fauxumentary didn’t come as a surprise. Discovery Communications had previously netted huge ratings with similar chicanery. Discovery didn’t “sink its credibility” with the prehistoric shark. The network family’s credibility was already long gone.

Last year, Animal Planet – a channel owned by Discovery Communications – spent a mind-numbing two hours trying to convince viewers that ichthyosapiens is real with the fictional Mermaids: The Body Found. Animal Planet doubled down this year with a reairing of the original and a noxious supplement titled Mermaids: The New Evidence. These shows carried only the barest of disclaimers that they were fiction rather than fact – I still get occasional emails and comments from those who believe mermaids are among us – and the shows broke audience records. Animal Planet representative Marjorie Kaplan said she and her associates are “thinking big” about how to follow the success. Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives follows in the wake of Mermaids and may be a look at the future of “science” television. That is, if reality show nonsense doesn’t totally overwhelm formerly non-fiction channels first.

But documentary deceitfulness runs deeper than outright hoaxes, and is really nothing new. Most infamously, the creators of the 1958 Disney nature film White Wilderness used a turntable to launch lemmings off a cliff to make the rodents appear as if they were committing mass suicide. The program won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature. Nor are fraud and sleight of hand issues of the past.

A wolverine at the Kristiansand Zoo, Norway. Despite no authenticated case of a wolverine killing a human, the carnivore is presented as a bloodthirsty monster in 'Yukon Men.' Photo by Birgit Fostervold, distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A wolverine at the Kristiansand Zoo, Norway. Despite no authenticated case of a wolverine killing a human, the carnivore is presented as a bloodthirsty monster in ‘Yukon Men.’ Photo by Birgit Fostervold, distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Seeing is believing. That shouldn’t be. As passive viewers, we’re quite easy to fool, and different sorts of tricks are regularly used to present a facsimile of nature rather than a reality. In his book Shooting the Wild, for example, documentarian Chris Palmer explains that filmmakers Carol and Richard Foster capture animals which they then film on carefully-constructed sets. To film vampire bats lapping human blood, Palmer recounts, the Fosters created an artificial cave for the bats and a mock-up camp nearby where a volunteer pretended to be asleep while the bats scurried over him and eventually tucked in for a liquid lunch. (Wisely, the actor had been given a rabies vaccine beforehand.) Palmer notes that the Fosters are honest about such methods, but the networks who show their programs may or may not make such artificial setups clear to viewers.

The techniques of Wild America host Marty Stouffer were not so transparent. In 1996, after a damning article in the Denver Post that charged Stouffer’s “wild” vignettes were really filmed in enclosures and sometimes used captive animals, the network PBS ran an investigation on the show. The investigation, Palmer notes in Shooting the Wild, found that “a significant percentage” of Wild America episodes had some staged component and even included unethical behavior, such as filming wolves chase and kill a deer within an enclosure that the deer could not escape. Stouffer denies these charges and has moved on to other projects, but his reputation among other professionals was badly tarnished.

Even David Attenborough, the most beloved natural history host of all time, has presented a faked scene that trod over the ethical line. For Life in Cold Blood, a captive cobra was placed upon a rock and agitated to spit at the celebrity naturalist. Marine biologist Andrew Thaler has recounted similar deceptions on Animal Planet shows Call of the Wildman and Gator Boys. Captive animals aren’t always available for a close-up, though, so, as Palmer also documents, some filmmakers are not above goading or harassing wild animals to get more dramatic, fierce reactions from their stars.

Interviewers aren’t above manipulation, either. When a crew from the History channel series MonsterQuest interviewed paleontologist Donald Prothero for a show about an Apatosaurus-like dinosaur that supposedly lives in the Congo Basin, they handed the scientist a plaster cast of what was meant to be – but clearly wasn’t – a footprint of the animal. Prothero rightly rejected the evidence, but the crew tried over and over again to film a “gotcha” moment of Prothero thrown off guard. That never happened. And when the show eventually aired, the program failed to mention that their star explorers were young earth creationists who were pursuing the dinosaur because they mistakenly believed such a discovery would discredit evolutionary theory. The utterly disreputable H2 show Ancient Aliens pulled a similar scam on viewers in their episode on dinosaurs, tapping religious fundamentalists as science experts.

Editing and presentation can create fiction from reality, too. Adam Welz has rightly observed that editors can still remix stock footage with scary music to spawn hyperbolic, unrealistic visions of animals. Shark Week itself is a perfect example of this ubiquitous trend. Discovery relies on blood in the water to bring in viewers, and any education the audience receives is an aside. One of this year’s new programs was called Great White Serial Killer, for crying out loud, and shark experts rightly scoffed at the overplayed bloodthirstiness of the show on Twitter.

Of course, there are reputable and ethical cinematographers who are disturbed by such trends. (See Shooting the Wild for a fuller account.) But even documentarians who operate ethically may create artificial sets or use computer generated imagery to show viewers something that would be impossible to capture otherwise. Whether this counts as deceit or not rests on how the behind-the-scenes process of filmmaking is accounted for and disclosed to audiences. The fact is, shows like Mermaids and Megalodon are extensions of trends that have been in place for years.

Documentary creators use sets, careful edits, and even computer-generated effects to get the scenes they want. What you’re seeing on screen may be a facsimile of nature rather than something captured without human interference. This should go without saying, but don’t believe everything you see on TV.

Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives gave science communicators like me an easy target. You really can’t miss a 50 foot shark. “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” If the program had clearly been labeled as fiction, I wouldn’t have much reason to get in a snit, but the show was clearly presented to capitalize on Discovery’s reputation as a non-fiction network and therefore dupe viewers. But in all this outrage, we shouldn’t forget that hoaxes, fraud, deception, and salacious depiction have existed for as long as there have been wildlife films. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon, especially since the most popular shows are the ones that are unapologetic fakes. Audiences bear some responsibility for making these monsters, too.

I’ve been heartened to see that objections to Discovery’s hoax have fleetingly catapulted some of my fellow science communicators into the media spotlight. Blogs, Twitter, and other forms of media, as Steven Silberman once observed, can act as a rapid-response immune system to nonsense, and quickly-executed takedowns may even change the public narrative. But I have absolutely no doubt that we’re going to go through all this again by next Shark Week, if not before. That’s why we need to keep talking. We may never be able to stop irresponsible ratings bait from airing, but we can try to co-opt the popularity of hyperbolic shows to maybe, just maybe, speak some science among the sensationalism.

[Note: National Geographic Wild is running a competing marathon called Sharkfest this week. I have not seen any of the episodes, but some of the show titles and clips - "California Killer", "Florida Frenzy", "Panic in Paradise", etc. - seem to capitalize on the same hyperbole that Shark Week has relied on for so long. Everyone is chumming for viewers.]

There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Emma Sarah Tennant
    August 9, 2013

    As a fan of the Horniman Museum merman, or monkey-fish, I can believe you ‘still get occasional emails and comments from those who believe mermaids are among us’. I like to watch documentaries for actual learning, disappointing to know many may not be underpinned by real science. An interesting Friday night-in read.

  2. BJ Nicholls
    August 9, 2013

    I’ll never forgive them for what they did to Vanessa Redgrave! ;-)

  3. Rdizzie
    August 9, 2013

    While I agree with a very large portion of what you said. The frustration The frustration I feel when the children I know touting what they saw on t.v. as indisputable fact. The show ancient Aliens touting evidence that is so fallible I watch it as a comedy show. I mean if an Alien millions of years more advanced visited us A. They would not be using chemical rockets as they claim. 2 they would not be using line of sight navigation, nor would they be building with stone. Just to name a few. These things while only a few examples are so mindbogglingly frustrating.

    These however are way beyond the point however they do serve to show us something. A smart mind should know this, T.V. is first and foremost ENTERTAINMENT, end of the story. Unscripted reality does not sell ad time like the hyper-dramatic lives we see of the rich and for some reason famous, and the new phenomenon of the “redneck” and “hillbilly” reality (being a red neck, I can tell you these shows are just as fake as the rest) . T.V. is not this way because we make it so, we are this way because of T.V.

    As if American children are not stupid enough most are raised by the T.V. and when they have shows hailed as “reality” or “science” they think they can trust these assertions. All this being said, we should know better and take steps to inform them that T.V. is a business not an educator. Discovery did not start a channel to educate, to believe otherwise is just laughable. Which begs the question, why get upset when they do what you know T.V. does? The proper response is to not be as shocked by reality of what T.V. is as you are by the show that lies. The proper response is to take the proper step to educate people on the fact that T.V. is just entertainment for money.

    All this being said, I really hate reality t.v. Though a couple times I find myself in front of a t.v. when someone else is viewing it or I come across it while channel surfing and something strange happens. Knowing I dislike it, knowing it is usually stupid and pointless, and while actively criticizing it I find it difficult to change the channel or leave while it is on. Eventually I do, and I have no idea what makes me stay but this is what happens.

  4. Rdizzie
    August 9, 2013

    Sorry I wanted to mention that show the “lost tapes” even with a somewhat ample disclaimer at the beginning many people for a long time still thought these were real. I call it the “blare witch” equation. For some reason if T.V. claims it is real people watch it thinking it is real, regardless of any disclaimer posted or not. Disclaimers are like those user agreements on the computer, no one actually reads them.

  5. Jonny O
    August 9, 2013

    These shows are all about ratings. Conventional “science” programming doesn’t attract the “average” viewer. The people who make these shows are not scientists – they are filmmakers out to grab an audience, whatever the means. Amazing how people believe nature shows until something like this happens, and then the frauds from Disney to IMAX get cited as people’s jaws drop (“What? THAT was staged???”) I’ve known about these things for years. For all its fakery, I applaud “Megalodon” for being “creative” rather than “creationist.”

  6. Jon C
    August 10, 2013

    “Even David Attenborough, the most beloved natural history host of all time, has presented a faked scene”

    In the Blue Planet’s deep episode, the hatchetfish, and some of the other deep-sea species, are actually dead specimens in an aquarium tank manipulated on wires (I’ve worked at sea with the photographer who shot the sequence), and some of the demonstrations of their bioluminescent displays are special effects. If you watch closely knowing that, it becomes obvious. When I point this out to my first-year marine biology undergraduate students, it’s like telling kids that Santa isn’t real.

    But it’s a long way from that, where it would be almost impossible to record those real behaviours that clearly in situ, to a documentary portraying something that is impossible as real, and using actors to play fictional scientists, complete with faked personal webpages etc (as in the Mermands documentary).

    The problem is perhaps that it can be a slippery slope between those two for TV folks. All TV involves some artifice to enhance or create narrative; when Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson is having a race back from the south of France in a Bugatti versus Richard Hammond in a light aircraft, etc etc, don’t you ever think “hang on, for the camera crew to get that shot of him driving into a tunnel and so on, somehow they must be getting ahead of him all the time to set up?”. For most of us, however, there’s a level of suspension of disbelief that we’re prepared to go along with, and then there’s a line that should not be crossed.

    Fortunately, if you want original narratives of science, these days you can follow and interact with scientists directly, through their own outreach efforts (and ok, here’s my shameless plug: http://www.thesearethevoyages.net), without the “middle men” of TV commissioning editors, producers etc.

  7. Dan J Andrews
    August 10, 2013

    Just stop watching tv. Spend the extra time taking a free online course (eg Coursera–There’s a paleo one being offered by Dr. Currie soon). If you really want to see a show, stream it or watch on DVD when it comes out. You can avoid all those intelligence-insulting commercials too….so why not avoid intelligence-insulting tv programs?
    Watching tv should be something you do when you’re too sick to do anything else and need to take your mind off your troubles and don’t have any drugs available. :-)

  8. Ed Yong
    August 10, 2013

    I’m gonna strongly disagree with you about the Attenborough cobra thing. It’s a natural behaviour that was performed by a captive cobra. There’s nothing fake about that. If we’re saying that such scenes traverse some ethical line, then the vast majority of all old documentaries – including much of Attenborough’s seminal Life on Earth – is unethical, given that it features a huge amount of footage in indoor arenas and with captive animals.

  9. Christopher
    August 10, 2013

    Discovery, the learning channel, and Animal Planet are little more than the National Enquirer of tv. I agree that it would be fine to present it as an obvious science fiction piece, I absolutely love old cheesy sci-fi flicks like THEM! or the Wasp Woman, and I tune in every week for Svengoolie but then those movies don’t pretend to be anything but pure silly popcorn entertainment. Not that National Geographic’s programming is all that great either, what with the new show about castle building,weapons hoarding crazies fearing the collapse of society. Even the great PBS foists pseudoscience health and wellness gibberish by “doctors” claiming you can avoid Alzheimer’s or aging if only you buy their book and DVD sets. Perhaps it’s long past time to turn off the boob tube and read a book written by real scientists who are verifiable experts in their field instead?

  10. Rdizzie
    August 11, 2013

    Something that just dawned on me and I am surprised I have not yet read on this blog as well as a similar on this same topic and site, the other being about this documentary but posted actual shark facts, is that if they are willing to try and deceive for ratings what is to stop them from falsifying data or facts in order to do the same? I mean if they portray certian things as fact like fake scientist and photo shopping as fact, why then would they not add extra abilities to said animals or stretch their size limits, habitats and other such things to make them seem more threatening to humans? But as I have said before it is T.V. so none of this surprises me. Maybe they are faking the Kraken also ( I am calling the giant squid “Kraken”) as the name fits in many ways.

  11. PNG
    August 12, 2013

    “Even the great PBS foists pseudoscience health and wellness gibberish by “doctors” claiming you can avoid Alzheimer’s or aging if only you buy their book and DVD sets.”

    I used to think of the PBS fundraising times as begathons. Now I call them quackathons. It’s a shame that seems to be the price paid to get decent science programs and costume dramas.

  12. Jonny O
    August 12, 2013

    People have different tolerance levels. Bottom line: if something presented in a natural history “documentary” isn’t 100% true – whether it’s “false” or not depends upon the tolerance of the viewer. I, personally, think that unless the camera records a scenario that is 100% untouched by humans except for the focusing of a camera, anything else is “false.” I don’t accept this argument that “it nevertheless represents ‘real’ behavior’.” That escape clause has been adopted by the BBC and other natural history filming units in order to justify their sensationalized output for narrative purposes. I’m not buying it. To those who find it “real” – well – I guess you’re just not “scientists,” only “science supporters.”

  13. Jonny O
    August 12, 2013

    Meant to say:
    “Bottom line: if something presented in a natural history ‘documentary’ isn’t 100% true – whether it’s ‘false’ or not depends upon the scientific background of the viewer.”

  14. Darcy
    August 12, 2013

    their attempts to fool the general public is a simple, undeserved, mockery of both animal lovers and knowledge seekers!

  15. Mike from Ottawa
    August 12, 2013

    I’m trying to recall the last time I watched anything on Discovery other than Mythbusters and can’t.

    If I were a climate denialist or in the chemical industry, I’d be sponsoring these focumentaries. Convince the public mermaids are real and megalodon is still around and you help undermine those nasty scientists who are threatening to make life difficult for CO2 and methane spewers and who don’t accept that ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’..

  16. Jacob
    August 12, 2013

    I find it hard to believe that any self respecting educated person would bother to watch Shark Week. The program has been nothing but shark attack files and air jaws for at least a decade. There is only so much stock footage of a great white swimming under a boat while some spooky music pays behind a narrator that tells you about the 4 hapless people it bit over the past two years, before you just have to turn it off and fined something more constructive to do with your life.

  17. JMW
    August 13, 2013

    Groucho Marx: “Television is highly educational. Every time someone turns one on, I go into another room and read a good book.”

  18. ERose
    August 13, 2013

    While a little healthy skepticism about TV (and internet) content is useful, I’d hope more commenters would see this discussion as more than a chance to congratulate themselves on being too smart to even watch TV. Regardless of what “people should do,” television is an effective tool for visual communication – the reason the Discovery Channel and its affiliates ever had value is that the natural world in many cases has to be seen to be believed. There is value in any medium that makes science more accessible, especially to future generations.
    Conversely, there is harm in using such a powerful medium to spread disinformation deliberately. Making it hard for the public to trust and understand science is never good, so yes, probably this needs more serious consideration than dismissing anyone who watches Shark Week.

  19. Rdizzie
    August 13, 2013

    If we look at Discovery Channel and their current program those of you who like this channel but despise the Fauxementaries, just look at Amish Mafia this is the new “documentary” and a continuation of “reality”, same can be said for the program “breaking Amish” these are clear and obvious exaggerations of the Amish community. The fact is there is NO Amish mafia and they do call the police for offenses that warrant it, such as murder. This somewhat off topic but it is clear evidence of what Discovery will do for ratings, such as lying they claim Amish Mafia is real and it simply is not.

  20. pachyrukkhos
    August 20, 2013

    This is the time to ask ourselves as scientists, ‘is it enough to just ignore such demeaning television pap or ifs it put responsibility to fight it?’ Lets face it, much like it occurs in the fight against anti evolutionary currents, many scientists think that if they just close their eyes everything will go away. Its time for a new breed of science activists to take control, and if we really care about bringing back any kind of credible science medias we must act now.

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