Interview with Discovery Channel Executive Paul Gasek
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the controversy surrounding this year’s “Shark Week”. Some shark conservationists believe that the Discovery Channel is promoting negative stereotypes about sharks at a time when we should be promoting conservation. Paul Gasek, Senior Science Editor and Executive Producer for the Discovery Channel, wanted to tell his side of the story, and agreed to be interviewed for Southern Fried Science. I let you, the readers of Southern Fried Science, suggest questions for my interview.
This interview has generated a great deal of buzz. Over a dozen science blogs directed readers to Southern Fried Science to submit questions, and I want to thank everyone who helped spread the word. Between e-mail, facebook, and direct blog submissions, I received well over 100 questions. It’s clear that lots of people care about this issue, and I think I speak for everyone when I tell you that we all appreciate Paul taking the time to answer our questions.
Because some questions were similar, and because some submitters are international and don’t speak English as a first language, I have rephrased and combined several questions. According to my agreement with Discovery, I have limited this interview to ten questions. Also according to my agreement with Discovery, I have not edited Paul’s responses in any way.
Whysharksmatter (WSM): How does one become the Discovery Channel’s Senior Science Editor? What is your background? How did you get into this line of work? What is your favorite thing about your job? Do you have any advice for others who are interested in this career path?
Paul Gasek (PG): I’ve spent 25 years making science and natural history-based programming for National Geographic, PBS, Animal Planet, TLC, Science Channel and now Discovery Channel. Science is, collectively, the biggest non-fiction story on the planet and needs to be told. I’m especially interested in the areas of climate, ocean ecology and sustainability. I strive to tell these stories in a comprehensible, interesting and entertaining way. It does no good to do science programming that no one watches. So I work hard to find a balance.
WSM: Do you believe that how movies, the news, and networks like the Discovery Channel portray sharks affects how the public views sharks? For example, in the scientific community, it is widely acknowledged that the movie Jaws has encouraged public fear of sharks. We can’t help but notice that a poster for this year’s Shark Week bears a strong resemblance to the movie poster for Jaws. Though your website has lots of conservation information, do you believe that some of your programming promotes fear of sharks?
PG: At Discovery Channel, we pride ourselves on telling compelling and accurate stories. Shark Week is no different. Two of our shows this year are based on actual historical events: one is about the first U.S.-based shark attacks on record, off the New Jersey shore in 1916, and the other is about the infamous summer of 2001 when more than 50 swimmers were attacked by sharks off U.S. beaches. It is a fact that sharks sometimes mistake people for prey and attack. In these, and many of our shows, we are digging deeper than the media headlines and telling the stories behind the stories.
WSM: Are you and other Discovery Channel executives aware of the following facts?:
A) Sharks kill less than ten humans a year
B) Less than 1% of shark species have ever bitten a human
C) Sharks play key roles in regulating ecosystems
D) Losses of shark populations have resulted in collapses of economically important fisheries
E) More than 100 million sharks a year are killed in one of the most wasteful, unsustainable, and brutal fishing practices on Earth…
F) Resulting in dozens of species suffering 95% or higher population declines in the last thirty years?
Please see this blog post for sources (and elaborations) on all of these facts.
PG: We are absolutely aware of the plight – and importance – of sharks. And while we have millions of people watching our Shark Week programming (29 million people last year) and visiting our Shark Week website (one million people in July alone) we work hard to educate them about the importance of shark conservation.
Each year, Discovery Channel partners with Ocean Conservancy on a Public Service Announcement about the state of sharks which airs throughout Shark Week. Here’s the script for this year’s PSA:
“Everyone hears about the rare incident of a shark mistaking a human for food – but the reality is we are taking sharks out of the ocean by the millions. Some shark species are down by 80%. Many face extinction. Sharks need your help to survive. Help Discovery and Ocean Conservancy protect sharks around the world — go to Discovery.com to learn more.””
We also dedicate a large portion of our website to shark conservation, using it as a tool to entertain and educate people. Here are a few of my favorites:
a resource center for conservation organizations (http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/sharkweek/more/more.html)
a map showing the state of shark populations worldwide (http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/sharkweek/map/map.html)
and a Sharkrunners game that uses real data from scientists around the world to track sharks and learn more about them (http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/sharkweek/shark-runners/shark-runners.html)
WSM: Professional wildlife photographers almost always acknowledge when they have manipulated a shot rather than photographing a natural behavior. However, many of the behaviors shown on Discovery Channel Shows are obviously manipulated, either through chumming, artificially encouraging “feeding frenzies”, or, in one case, stuffing dead fish into a dummy to simulate a shark attack. Why do you use shots that aren’t natural behaviors at all, and when you do use them, why do you not stress more that the behaviors were manipulated by the photographer in order to get a more dramatic shot?
PG: As you know, sharks can be camera shy and/or less abundant. Consistent with tourist dive operations, we often have to chum to bring them in. After all, what’s a shark show without sharks? You’ll notice in this year’s shows we point out when bait is used so viewers can see how sharks behave in these situations.
On one particular shoot this year, we didn’t have to bait at all! We filmed sandtigers off the coast of North Carolina for the SHARK AFTER DARK show. While we had permission to chum in this area to show feeding behavior, we chose not to as it is one of the few places in the U.S. you can reliably see sharks without baiting. We definitely made the right decision – what a privilege to film in this special location where the food was abundant and so were the sharks.
WSM: This controversy surrounding shark week isn’t new. A group of shark conservationists last year met with you and other Discovery Channel executives for over four hours. At this meeting, these conservationists say that you agreed to try and change the tone of shark week (which clearly hasn’t happened, this year’s schedule features shows like “Deadly Waters” and “Sharkbite Summer”). They also say that you asked them to submit ideas, they sent lots of ideas, and that you never responded to them. What do you have to say about these complaints?
PG: In 30 years of work in television, I’ve heard a lot of pitches. So you can imagine how many come into the network. I asked our development team about this and here is what they said:
“Discovery Channel receives over 300 program ideas per week. We take a great deal of time vetting each idea based on editorial fit, financial feasibility, and programming need. Unfortunately, the scarcity of available slots means that most of these programming ideas we see never hit air. Of this pool of 300 pitches, only one or two are greenlit.”
For all of Shark Week this year, there are six premieres – a few of which have been in production for more than a year.
I also want to address the objection to some of the Shark Week program titles. These titles are designed to be attention-getting and bring people to the network. We have to get people to watch the shows in order to educate and entertain them. I’ve never known a title to make someone afraid of sharks – but I have known a title to get someone to watch a show about them.
WSM: With reference to health care reform, President Obama recently said “To those who simply criticize without offering new ideas of their own, I have to ask, what’s your answer?” I agree, and I try to only criticize when I can offer an alternative. My readers have suggested dozens of other types of documentaries than those that focus on sharks attacking people. One notes that since sharks are such well adapted hunters, that simply watching them hunt for seals or fish should offer plenty of thrills to DC’s viewers. Several suggested showing movies about the shark fin fishery, or how sharks are crucial to marine ecosystems. One suggested a movie about some of the world’s weirdest sharks (many deepwater animals are crazy looking), another suggestion was to follow a shark-killing tournament while interspersing conservation facts, another involves shark tanks in aquariums around the world. Others suggest a show about animals in the ocean deadlier than sharks, such as venomous animals. I saw two great conservation-minded documentaries at the BLUE Ocean Film Festival: “Requiem”, a woman’s quest to swim with the world’s most dangerous sharks to learn if they really are dangerous (interspersed with conservation facts throughout), and “Shark Nicole/Great White Shark Odyssey”, which chronicled the life of an individual shark and the threats she faced as she migrated across the oceans. There are many more suggestions as well. What do you think about these ideas?
PG:People interact with Discovery in many ways – our news service, our website and, of course, our on-air programming. We offer a variety of information and resources on all of these outlets, from the latest in shark research to online games using real shark data.
Regarding on-air programming, as I said, we get hundreds of pitches for every one that makes it to air. And those are from production companies with all the resources and filmmaking expertise already in place. We get hundreds more from viewers with their own ideas about what they want to see on our network. And we welcome this. The more ideas we get, the more we have to choose from, ensuring the very best ones make it to air.
What research tells us about Shark Week is it’s the interaction between sharks and people that attract viewers. So we try to find a variety of ways to do this. For example, in our new show ‘Shark After Dark’ (for which I served I was executive producer), shark experts got into the water with various sharks – at night – to learn more about shark behavior in the dark. It’s action packed and a bit scary at times. But the team came back with great information and an amazing show. It’s this energy, action and adventure that bring people to Discovery Channel and to Shark Week. And while they often come to Discovery for the excitement, they stay for the information.
WSM: The Discovery Channel has recently dealt with other series, most notably, Man vs. Wild, portraying false depictions of man surviving in the wilderness, when he is actually surviving a hotel room. With this scandal and Shark Week’s sensationalistic, inaccurate, and environmentally harmful depictions of sharks, do you still consider the Discovery Channel’s goal to educate viewers with documentaries about the natural world, or do you consider yourselves to be a network that entertains with fiction?
PG: We are constantly raising the standards of our programming and pride ourselves on the fact that Discovery Communications is the number one nonfiction media company in the world. To say we strive for anything less than that would be completely inaccurate.
It is important to correct statements where inaccurate. To clarify, the Man vs. Wild incident was two years ago and the show was immediately changed to be transparent.
As I said, Discovery Channel makes every effort to create compelling and accurate shows. To help with Shark Week, we enlisted marine biologist Andy Dehart – who has extensive shark experience – to help us ensure the accuracy of our shark shows.
WSM: There are many smart, dedicated people in the shark conservation community. How can we help you and the Discovery Channel to portray sharks in a more accurate and conservation-friendly light? As a scientist and conservationist, I am happy to volunteer my services as a consultant for whatever you need, and I know I’m not alone. What can we do to help?
PG: I can’t think of another science-based group more passionate about their work than shark scientists and conservationists. And we appreciate that commitment. We have tapped into the expertise of several shark experts on this year’s Shark Week programming and online content including Andy Dehart of the National Aquarium, Sonja Fordham of the Ocean Conservancy, International Shark Attack File Curator George Burgess, legendary shark filmmaker Jeff Kurr and marine biologist and Neptunic Sharksuit inventor Jeremiah Sullivan to name just a few. These are all devoted “sharkies” and we value their guidance as we continue to make Shark Week better and better each year.
WSM: Animal Planet, a Discovery Channel affiliate, has a successful show called Whale Wars that documents the actions of the activist group “Sea Shepherd”. Many conservationists and scientists believe that Sea Shepherd does much more harm to the environmental movement than good. By endangering the lives of whalers and shark finners, Sea Shepherd makes those people look like the victims. Their actions also make the general public associate caring about whales and sharks with being a fanatical zealot, making it harder for legitimate conservation groups to win public support. What do you think about this? Please see this blog post for more information.
PG: There are so many ways to tell a conservation story. I can’t answer for Animal Planet’s ‘Whale Wars’ but I asked the executive producer Jason Carey to weigh in on this one. And here he does…
“Animal Planet’s seven-part series WHALE WARS broke new ground in wildlife filmmaking. In this first ever “conservation adventure series,” we tackled one of the most contentious stories in the wildlife world today. Both the Japanese and Sea Shepherds claim to have the law on their side and this built-in rivalry led to some of the most dramatic filmmaking ever captured in wildlife-related work. By taking an in-depth view into these characters who have committed their lives to saving whales, Animal Planet presented a fascinating view of animal conservation in the modern world. And by following the story of whale survival through this human lens, we were able to tell a story filled with an emotional depth that rarely comes across in wildlife filmmaking. Viewers have many different angles to approach the series, and I am confident that they are discerning enough to both enjoy the series as entertaining television and see the magnitude of the issues WHALE WARS portrays.
In fact, ‘Whale Wars’ has brought the issue of whaling back into the public debate. While people may not agree with Sea Shepherd’s methods, ‘Whale Wars’ provides a platform for healthy dialogue about a very serious issue and lets viewers have a chance to see and decide for themselves.
What is happening to our oceans and its creatures is a big area of concern for our audience. However, it’s important to note that this is not so much a journalistic enterprise or endeavor about the complex issues surrounding whaling as it is a character study on the members of an organization. The series shines a spotlight on what motivates these individuals to get involved in this issue and the lengths they’ll go through to take a stand in what they believe in. The Sea Shepherd’s activities are damned by some and heralded by others.”
WSM: During your career, you have likely heard many pitches for shows that never made it on the air. Can you tell us about some of them? What show would you most have liked to see go on the air, and why didn’t it make it?
PG: I spent most of my career as an independent producer, creating pitches of my own. A LOT of them. One of mine that did make it to air was a 1995 Discovery special called Eyes in the Sky about our new ability to remotely observe the Earth and compress time to see change, like the disappearance of the Amazon rain forest.
I’d like to tell you about the one show I’m working to get on the air, but I don’t want to give it away just yet.
I really want to thank Paul and all the other Discovery Channel executives who took the time to answer my questions.
I said earlier that I would refrain from signing this petition denouncing the Discovery Channel until I heard their side of the story. After speaking with them and reading what they have to say, I am announcing that I am not signing this petition. As always, you are free to do what you want.