Ten ways to make Shark Week better
Though I was not as critical as some of my colleagues, I was disappointed by this year’s “Shark Week“. Months after an IUCN report showed that 1/3 of oceanic shark species are in danger of extinction, several Shark Week specials promoted fear and not conservation. I’ve never been one to criticize without offering suggestions for improvement, though. Here are a few ways that the Discovery Channel can do a better job next year. These suggestions are organized by how difficult they would be to implement, which is not necessarily how much of an impact they would have.
I would appreciate it if you guys would comment NOT on how likely you think these are to occur, but on how happy you would be if Discovery incorporated them. I want the Discovery Channel executives to see that we, the marine conservation community, can work with them in a positive way and not just criticize.
Easy fixes- Things that require very little change to Shark Week.
1) Conservation pop-ups! Throughout Shark Week, little text boxes pop up on the bottom of the screen. This doesn’t disrupt the show at all and doesn’t require the producers of the Shark Week documentary to do anything- it’s edited in later. This year, almost all of the pop-up boxes informed us what documentary was on next, or told us about merchandise sales on Discovery’s website. It would be extremely easy to add pop-up boxes with conservation messages. Discovery’s website has a lot of worthwhile shark conservation information, but viewers weren’t told that it was there. If every documentary had a pop-up box that said “Sharks are in trouble, find out why and how you can help, log onto Discovery.com/SharkWeek” this wouldn’t disrupt the show at all and it would certainly help.
2) Change the promos. Shark Week promos this year were simply ridiculous. You don’t need an ominous voice and letters dripping blood. People are interested in sharks without artificial hype. I guarantee you that the general public will be hooked if you show, for example, footage of graceful schooling hammerheads. Text without blood dripping from it and a narrator that doesn’t sound constipated would take some of the silliness away without making viewers less interested in any way.
3) Improve the website. While the Shark Week website has a lot of good conservation information, very little of it is geared toward people who have never heard that sharks are important and in big trouble (i.e. most of the country). It’s also somewhat confusingly organized. The website would benefit from an introductory page in the style of my “Four things everyone needs to know about sharks“- a brief introduction (for complete newcomers to the world of shark conservation) that says that sharks aren’t a major threat to humans, that they are economically and ecologically important, that they are in deep trouble, and that you can help. Heck, I’d be more than happy to just let you use my post rather than make a new one, as long as it’s properly attributed.
Slightly harder fixes– things that require a slight change to the documentaries and Shark Week itself.
1) Require that a scientist be interviewed. Most documentaries this year featured an interview from a shark scientist, but not all did. The public trusts scientists and would consider what we say. Even if the rest of the documentary was about sharks attacking humans, a 90 second clip from a shark scientist explaining that shark attacks aren’t very likely and that sharks are actually important to ecosystems (and in trouble) would go a long way.
2) Don’t openly mock science and conservation. Ideally all Shark Week documentaries should have a conservation focus, but barring that, they at least shouldn’t openly mock science and conservation. The historical reenactment scientist in “Blood in the Water” was presented as an idiot for claiming that shark attacks are rare, and an interviewed attack victim in Sharkbite Summer said that all the statistics you hear about shark attacks being rare are meaningless when it happens to you.
3) Require a pro-conservation close. Some documentaries that focused on shark attacks ended by saying that “shark attacks are really rare, don’t worry”. Others didn’t. None of the attack-focused specials said anything about how sharks are crucial to ecosystems that humans depend on economically, or how some species are critically endangered. Even if the rest of the documentary focused on sharks attacking humans, at least including a couple of minutes of pro-conservation material at the end would provide some balance.
4) Get a better PSA. This year’s ocean conservancy PSA said that shark finning needed to be stopped, but didn’t say what shark finning IS or why it’s a threat or why sharks are important in the first place. As Andrew would say, this is “subpar at best”. If I were more cynical, I might echo my colleagues opinion that this stinks of wanting to appear like you’re trying to help without actually doing anything that will help.
Pretty hard fixes- Things that would require a great deal of work to incorporate into Shark Week.
1) Include at least one solidly pro-conservation documentary (ideally all the documentaries, but at least one would be good). There are LOTS of conservation-minded shark documentaries and conservation-minded production companies out there. Work with them. Maybe when Shark Week first aired, the American public wasn’t in the mindset to appreciate conservation and environmentalism. Now they are. Look at how successful “An Inconvenient Truth” was and how many people drive Hybrids-people care about the environment more than ever before. You can capitalize on this. I’d be very surprised if pro-conservation documentaries reduced your viewership at all, and wouldn’t be surprised if they increased your viewership. I even have two recommendations for you of movies that are already made.
-The producers of Requiem, described by yours truly as the “best conservation-minded shark documentary” I’ve ever seen, have agreed to sell you the rights to their already-made documentary for HALF of your average shark week rate.
-The filmmaker behind “Island of the Great White Shark” has agreed to negotiate favorable terms for the Discovery Channel.
Both of these films are already made, are very entertaining, and are solidly pro-conservation.
2) Ditch the “Jaws and Claws” style shark attack specials. While I differ from my colleagues in that I don’t think that one shark attack special (if it includes how to avoid being attacked by sharks, a statement that shark attacks are rare, and a statement that sharks are actually important to humans and in trouble) is the end of the world. However, half of this year’s Shark Week was shark attack specials, some of them didn’t stress the rarity of a shark attack, and none mentioned that sharks are important to people and are in trouble. This is no good.
3) Don’t say anything completely ridiculous from a scientific perspective. This was most prevalent in “Blood in the Water”, which claimed that unusual moon activity led to a creek being extra salty for a couple of days, allowing a great white to swim up the creek and kill swimming children. There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start. It would be great to make sure that all of your facts are run by experts, but at least run them by college freshmen who have taken “Oceanography 101”.
Discovery Channel executives, I know that you are reading this because I sent it to you. I hope you’ll see that despite the outrage from some shark conservationists this year, we as a community are willing to work with you to make Shark Week better. Some of the suggestions here would be very easy to implement and could have a major impact. Others would require more work, but you have almost a year before the next “Shark Week”.
Shark Week is what first got me interested in sharks, and I haven’t missed one yet. That said, this year’s Shark Week could have and should have been better- less fearmongering, more science and conservation. As one of the world’s leading non-fiction entertainment companies, you reach a lot of people and can do a lot of good for an important and threatened group of animals. You know how to reach me if you have any questions- I remain happy to help in any way I can, and I remain cautiously optimistic that next year will be better.
Southern Fried Science readers, please join in the discussion here- which of these proposed changes would make you happiest? Do you have other proposed changes to make?
For more information on Shark Week, please check out:
–My interview about Shark Week with Discovery Channel Senior Science Editor Paul Gasek (featuring questions submitted by the readers of Southern Fried Science)
–My detailed review of each shark week special from this year.