The Trouble with Shark Week

Dear Discovery Channel,

Please pick a theme for Shark Week!  In a fear evoking frenzy, you arbitrarily rank the most deadly sharks and most gruesome attacks, then go on to demonstrate the ecological importance of sharks and the need to save them.  Your constant back-and-forth is very confusing and may be doing more harm than good.

If you are like me—a 20 or 30-something not reading this blog against your will—you may count yourself as part of Generation Shark Week.  Before the internet, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week was the disseminator of most of my collective information about sharks.  I can’t say I ever lost any sleep during Shark Week, but I can still replay some of those gruesome, blood-stained clips from 10 and 15 years ago.  And who knows—I am now a fisheries biologist, so I cannot easily argue that all those TV hours weren’t influential.

Typical Shark Week advertisement, promoting death, destruction, and
violence by angry sharks who ostensibly target beach-goers. (Source)

I have not kept up with Shark Week for several years.  But, on a recent channel surfing expedition, I was attacked with Shark Week promos and was quickly taken back to those long August nights some 15 years ago.  The current shows look a lot like what I remember—a deep, admonishing voice narrates over translucent blood running in the background as some cartoon-like, snaggle-toothed shark with glaring eyes swims across the screen.  Then, as if it is the legal obligation of the station, a short subdued segment follows that explains how overfishing sharks must end if we are to keep the oceans in some semblance of balance, almost like the often ignored softly spoken legal information that follows the utopian Viagra commercial.

I’m certainly not the first person to consider this, but: What exactly is the theme of Shark Week? (Other than the obvious answer: To create programs that will allow the Discovery Channel to charge the absolute highest price they can for advertising space.)

Images like these are impressive and display the raw power of sharks.
Unfortunately, they largely contribute to a culture of shark fear, suggesting that
sharks will readily leave the water in pursuit of a kill. (Source)
Most of Shark Week programming is geared toward the glorification of the violent aspect of sharks.  I am not necessarily against this vantage point as 1) sharks are one of the few carnivorous species large enough to evoke fear in humans, and 2) the Discovery Channel is free to air whatever they want.  However, in a quick survey of the 9 new original programs for Shark Week 2012, the primary themes of 7 shows are attacks or some other prominent theme of violence, whereas, only 2 programs focus on science, ecology, or non-violent themes.  Looking at the overall TV schedule for the week (which includes many specials from previous Shark Weeks), it was clear this disparity persisted.
I am not advocating turning Shark Week off; by all means please watch and enjoy—after all it is just TV.  But Discovery Channel, please know that you are delivering a very conflicted message—that the violent nature of sharks and the constant need to rank attacks, species, etc., is in direct contrast to the notion of conserving the very same animals!  This is like a week of TV dedicated to addictions, impugning all people who ever had a drink or a cigarette as heartless addicts, but once a day including a show that talks about real solutions to recovery.  Which is it, Discovery Channel?


For every shark that attacks a human, millions are killed, many solely for their fins.
Imagine how healthy we might be if we demonized smoking or overeating with
the same tenacity as we do sharks. (Source)
It is clear that society is addicted to Shark Week, but the statistics also show that society is addicted to over-harvesting sharks.  In the absence of a clear message, can anyone really wonder why we do what we do to sharks?
This post is more editorial than we are used to, but felt it a worthwhile point to make.  Please leave a comment with your feelings about Shark Week.
Steve Midway

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