The Discovery Channel is drawing fire after airing a documentary that is closer to science fiction than science fact.
On Sunday, the network kicked off Shark Week—their annual (and immensely popular) block of programs showcasing everyone’s favorite aquatic predator—with a program called Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives.
It sounds like a great premise. With a maximum length of 60 feet and teeth the size of butchers’ knives, the megalodon (not pictured at right) is one of history’s most fearsome predators. There’s only one problem: Despite what the show’s title may claim, this “monster shark” has been extinct for more than one million years.
Those watching the “documentary,” however, were not burdened with such inconvenient truths. Instead, Discovery hired actors to play marine biologists on a hunt for the megalodon around the coast of South Africa. Their expedition is mounted following the release of (faked) footage showing a fishing vessel taken down by a massive sea-dwelling predator (nicknamed “submarine”).
More fabricated “evidence” supporting the creature’s existence is presented, including a whale whose tail has been bitten off by an unknown animal, and a Coast Guard video showing a giant, shark-like shape moving through the water.
Viewers, perhaps accustomed to trusting a channel that calls itself “the world’s #1 non-fiction media company” (as Christie Wilcox of Discover magazine points out), were apparently convinced by all the smoke and mirrors (and CGI). A post-show poll shows 79 percent of respondents, as of Tuesday evening. believed the megalodon is still alive after watching the documentary. Only 27 percent said they thought the shark was extinct and “the scientists are right.”
Discovery is not new to the business of creating fake documentaries claiming to prove the existence of the strange and supernatural, In 2012 , Animal Planet—like the Discovery Channel, part of the vast Discovery Communications empire—aired a piece of so-called ‘docufiction’ entitled Mermaids: The Body Found. The immensely popular special featured footage of a “mermaid” that had supposedly washed up on a beach, and told of a government conspiracy to cover up the findings. However, Mermaids concludes with an admission that the program was fictional.
However, unlike Mermaids, Discovery’s Megalodon does not reveal its fantastical nature. In the closing seconds of the documentary, a brief disclaimer flashes across the screen stating:
None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents.
This confusing statement — an organization not being officially “affiliated” with a film is very different than completely making up their involvement — is tempered by the remainder of the statement, which hints that the events of the program may be real after all:
Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of “Submarine” continue to this day.
Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still a debate about what they may be.
At no point are the fake scientists or doctored footage mentioned.
It’s this apparently successful deception that has the internet up in arms. Discovery’s Facebook page was awash in criticism following the program, and geek icon Wil Wheaton penned a widely disseminated blog post slamming the network for abusing its viewer’s trust:
[Discovery] had a chance to even show what could possibly happen if there were something that large and predatory in the ocean today … but Discovery Channel did not do that. In a cynical ploy for ratings, the network deliberately lied to its audience and presented fiction as fact. Discovery Channel betrayed its audience.
Even after the hoax was revealed, Discovery has remained coy, essentially maintaining that, since a contemporary megalodon cannot be disproven, the jury is out on its continued existence.
“It’s one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, can Megalodon exist today?” said Shark Week executive produce Michael Sorensen to Fox News. “The stories have been out there for years and with 95% of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?”
But as Boston Magazine has cataloged, many actual marine biologists aren’t too happy that Discovery is playing fast and loose with the truth.
David Shiffman, a marine biologist who runs the twitter account @WhySharksMatter tweeted:
— David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) August 5, 2013
Wilcox, who wrote an open letter to Discovery criticizing the network, expressed a similar sentiment:
— Christie Wilcox (@NerdyChristie) August 6, 2013
Despite the criticism, the show’s explosive ratings make it clear why Discovery was willing to risk alienating so many of its longtime fans. Megalodon attracted 4.8 million viewers and is the most popular Shark Week episode since the network began the programming block in 1988.
This success surely came as no surprise to Discovery executives, who watched a double feature of Mermaids: The Body Found and its sequel, Mermaids: The New Evidence, become the highest rated Animal Planet broadcast of all time.
With fictional programming proving so lucrative, Discovery is in the awkward position of staying true to its core science-oriented fan base or broadening its appeal and reaping the resulting profits. If Megalodon is indicative of the network’s future, a Loch Ness Monster documentary might not be too far away.