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Ten ways to make Shark Week better

October 23, 2009

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” 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.


15 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2009 10:24 am

    Though I’d be delighted with any and all of the comments mentioned up here, probably the one that would make me happiest would be the suggestion about the footage of schooling hammerheads.

    In my opinion, the cinematography was the best thing about “Sharkwater,” because it showed the ocean, and sharks in particular, in a completely different light. Instead of the stock footage of a prowling oceanic white tip or great white shark, or the shot of a diver being attacked by a tiger shark, “Sharkwater” upped the contrast to make colors stand out and shot sharks while they were engaged in behavior that made them seem more beautiful and much less threatening.

    As much as a popup would do for shark conservation, I think that shooting video of sharks a la Rob Stewart would be much more subtle and much more visually appealing than anything. I know I’d be glued to the tv.

  2. October 23, 2009 10:28 am

    great commentary, thoughtful and well structured. no-one (unless they made the salty creek great white docco) could argue with this reason.

  3. Ted permalink
    October 23, 2009 12:09 pm

    Sometimes Shark Week feel like promos for monster truck rallies.


  4. October 23, 2009 1:54 pm

    Well thought out and presented. Shark Week 2009 made the mistake of underestimating their audience’s desire for information.

    Gone was the artful blend of information, science and yes, fear. Like a fine aged table wine, it’s all in the blend.

    Let’s hope DC Network folks see this and take heed. It’s a fine starting place for conversation and dare I say it, salvation, of a very tarnished brand.

  5. October 23, 2009 6:12 pm

    I like the idea for #1, the conservation pop-ups.

  6. October 24, 2009 3:26 am

    I like the way this has been set out, very clear and precise. I agree with all the points made, and with Sams comment, I believe cinematography is important, and would perhaps highlight the stark beauty of sharks, the way they move, (as in the footage of schooling Hammerheads), as opposed to just presenting them as predators. I believe the “fear factor” has to be included to some extent to draw audiences, a lot of people are “drawn in” by sick fascination,(there’s always those who slow down to get a good look at the scene of a motorway/highway accident for example?) But I agree that more facts about the rarity of shark attacks needs to be brought to ppl’s attention, and the importance of sharks in the ecological balance, and how ppl can help in their conservation in small ways…Yes to the pop ups, nice idea, and definately better pr about science and conservation.

  7. October 24, 2009 3:35 am

    Oh, here’s an idea…have you seen how Google advertise certain anniversaries, by having a design over their header…when you click on it, it’s actually a hyperlink which takes you to a website, giving information on the subject? Why not get in touch with them and /or other search engines to see if they’ll include sharkweek? I don’t recall seeing it on Google.

  8. Debz permalink
    October 24, 2009 9:11 am

    I agree, I think a lot of good points made. Although I have to say as sad as it is, I know that lots of people are drawn in to watch shark programmes BECAUSE of the gore factor and the stories of attacks. Even though I love sharks myself and want to help preserve them and understand that attacks are rare and usually mistaken identity etc… I still have a fascination on hearing and reading about these incidents! I think perhaps the answer would not be to eliminate this side of things from the adverts, but that when actually watching the programme, the viewer should learn more about the truth- include the attacks, but also explain why, and include equal examples of sharks and people experiencing good encounters.
    Also, I don’t know what kind of footage is available of sharks but perhaps something that would “humanize” them a bit would be a good idea. For example if people could see a mother and baby together, or some kind of behaviour that hints at emotion- even if it is anthromorphism a bit. If the general public could see sharks as having feelings more similar to us then I think this would change their whole view of them. At the moment they seem to be seen as cold and emotionless killing machines.

  9. Claire permalink
    October 24, 2009 3:34 pm

    Great article David! I definitely agree that the Discovery Channel needs to utilize better programming when it comes to Shark Week. I was so disappointed with this year’s Shark Week that I stopped watching it after the first couple of days, which is a big thing for me considering how much of a shark nerd I am. I would really appreciate it if the Discovery Channel would create more conservation oriented programming.

  10. glynis Howarth permalink
    October 25, 2009 8:09 am

    Love the pop-up idea..

  11. DrS permalink
    October 25, 2009 2:25 pm

    I love the commentary.
    I remember being so excited for Shark Week when I was a kid, in the 90s. I loved sharks, in retrospect probably because of the fear factor, but I remember learning so much along the way. I definitely came away knowing real information about sharks, and it probably played a large part in me becoming an environmentalist.
    Maybe I’m just not a kid anymore so I don’t see it, but it really seems like you can’t come away from Shark Week more knowledgeable about marine biology anymore. Worse, it won’t inspire anyone to care.

  12. October 26, 2009 7:12 pm

    Agreed. Shark Week definitely inspired me to get into marine conservation. In fact, a Shark Week special was the first place I heard about sharks being endangered. We need to get that back.

  13. Michael; South Africa permalink
    October 31, 2009 3:31 pm

    I like all the points that were said, let’s hope shark week would be more on the conservation way of life. I’m a victim of a white shark bite on one of our dives, well more like a nibble but I really shat (excuse the pun) myself when I saw this massive shadow moving at one heck of a speed. Luckily the guys in the boat pulled me out in time because I would have been finished. I have the greatest respect for sharks especially submarine (the great white that had a nibble at my calf muscle). Keep up the good work & hope all goes well!!!!!!!!!
    Peace Be Thy Journey!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. Sarah permalink
    November 5, 2009 7:48 am

    I don’t have much input other than what’s already been mentioned, but I think it would be really productive if they aired Sharkwater during Shark Week. A lot of times, they have one featured show about how sharks really aren’t dangerous, and then right after that they have something along the lines of ‘Shark Attacks from Ferocious Sharks!”. Its really not making any impact at all to have that first show with something like that right after. I know it raises views to have that second show on, but we as a whole need to change that misconception about sharks. No, they’re not all dangerous at all, yet 90% of the sharks’ population has been wiped out within the last 50 years. Shark finning is still going on, every day, every night, and by sitting here and putting those detrimental shows on tv, you’re not doing anything to stop it. Maybe a show on what will happen when you kill of the top of the food chain that has been here for millions of years and has yet found a need to evolve. I think that would really help, especially if those kind of shows outweighed the other ones about how ferocious the sharks are. Maybe then there’d be a change in heart by at least a few individuals. And a few is all we need to make a greater, positive impact on the conservation of sharks.


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    The Southern Fried Scientist

    Andrew is a graduate student in North Carolina studying deep sea biology. When not in the lab, he spends his time out on the water, usually swearing at his boat while simultaneously sacrificing some important tool to Poseidon in a desperate attempt to make the motor start. That is, assuming he can get his truck running long enough to actually put the boat in the water. He enjoys long walks on the beach, by necessity. Follow him on Twitter @SFriedScientist.


    David is a graduate student in South Carolina studying shark conservation. He is the author of the upcoming book “Why Sharks Matter: Using New Environmentalism to Show The Economic And Ecological Importance of Sharks, The Threats They Face, and How You Can Help”. His time is divided between educating the public about sharks, spending days at a time at sea playing with sharks, and eating horribly unhealthy foods. Follow him on Twitter @WhySharksMatter.

    bluegrass blue crab

    Amy is a graduate student in North Carolina studying local ecological knowledge within the blue crab fishery. She spends half her life studying the most charismatic of organisms - humans - and the estuaries on which they depend. While not contemplating grand social theories, she enjoys a good jam session and watching sunsets over the estuary. Follow her on Twitter @bgrassbluecrab.

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