Shark Week 2020
Updated: May 14
9th - 16th August 2020
Shark Week is undeniably a pop-culture titan. Shown on the Discovery Channel, Shark Week boasts broadcasting in over 70 countries, with millions tuning in to watch and numbers growing every year. Whilst Shark Week does include some educational programming, much of the schedule is devoted to dramatic retellings from shark-attack survivors or tense horror-movie-style reenactments of fatal shark attacks and "docufiction". Whatsmore, many of the shows are extremely violent: emphasising the gore of shark attacks and the might of the sharks hunting for their prey. So is Shark Week actually a useful educational tool to communicate shark science to the public ... or does it present a negative view of sharks, which generates hype and fear? In short, is Shark Week bad for sharks?
Shark Week has now been broadcasting for over 20 years. At its conception Shark Week was a true documentary event; devoted to correcting misconceptions about sharks, in order to raise awareness and support for conservation efforts.
However, as its popularity grew, Shark Week has morphed into something very different; "infotainment". Today, the event is centred increasingly around entertainment, with the inclusion of more and more dramatic programming, gore and horror, and even fictional shows. "Docufiction" shows such as "Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives" and "Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine", amongst others, are presented as documentary programming, but are in fact based in fiction. This can be extremely misleading for uninformed viewers.
"Shark Week... relied heavily on presenting audiences with images of sharks as violent killers, even after the channel partnered with ocean conservation groups in 2010"
- Myrick &Evans, 2014
By 2010, Shark Week was recieving serious criticism from the scientific community, with some researchers even claiming they had been 'duped' into appearing in "mockumentaries" and that they were unaware of the nature of the show they were participating in. Shark Week is now often discussed in scathing terms by scientists; criticised for its junk science and sensationalist nature.
In response, since 2010 Discovery has included public service announcements (PSAs) sandwiched between their scheduled programming during Shark Week. These PSAs explain the plight of sharks and call on the public to support shark charities and conservation efforts. They also often include statements about how low the risk of shark attack actually is in reality. Whatsmore, in 2015 the president of Discovery, Rich Ross, stated that mockumentaries would be removed from Shark Week programming.
In a recent study, scientists analysed how the tone of Shark Week is altered by the addition of PSAs between the scheduled documentaries. They randomly selected 531 American citizens and asked them to complete a questionnaire about their emotional responses after watching a segment of Shark Week programming (this included a 3 minute clip from one of the scheduled shows, followed by either a PSA or another random advertisement) (Myrick & Evans, 2014).
The study found that viewers experienced more fear and felt significantly more at risk from sharks when watching Shark Week clips. This effect was true for both live footage and reenactments. Whatsmore, the viewers' fear increased depending on the level of violence contained in the clip, especially if this violence was directed from shark to human (as opposed to towards a prey item, like a seal). Whilst, the inclusion of a PSA did alter the viewer's perception of conservation; making them more inclined to support shark protective measures, they had no effect on the fear felt by the viewer (Myrick & Evans, 2014).
"Watching the violent images often featured on Shark Week may lead audiences to become overly fearful of being victimized by sharks"
- Myrick & Evans, 2014
These findings suggest that the inclusion of PSAs amidst the Shark Week programming is not enough to alter the public's perception of sharks, if they continue to broadcast programmes with a sensationalist entertainment style (Myrick & Evans, 2014).
As this study was conducted in 2014, Discovery have now had many years to respond to public outcry regarding their Shark Week programming... So, after all the criticism, has the tone of programming during Shark Week improved at all? Is Shark Week now an educational celebration of sharks, which may be used to advance their conservation?
Shark Week 2020 is being advertised by Mike Tyson, with "Tyson vs Jaws" being marketed as the headline event. This is not the most scientific documentary I have seen in my life, to put it politely. Whatsmore, in the Shark Week TV schedule the word "Jaws" is used in at least 4 programme titles, and other titles include the words "wicked", "attack", "serial killer", "monsters", "lair" and "afraid"... this does not strike me as language condusive to encouraging people not to fear sharks. In fact, in my opinion this vocabulary is downright alarmist, and conjures images of monster movies and horror.
Modern scientists are becoming increasingly aware that public engagement is one of the most important aspects of their work, especially surrounding conservation initiatives. If scientists can garner public outcry over an animal's extinction risk, this massively increases the likelihood that conservation efforts will receive funding and legal backing. Television documentaries are a very powerful way for scientists to communicate conservation issues with the general public. For example, David Attenborough's call to reduce plastic pollution in his documentary "Blue Planet II" significantly reduced the global consumption of single-use plastics! Therefore, Shark Week has enormous potential to be a significant driver of shark conservation.
However, it seems that Shark Week still favours presenting sharks as violent killers, rather then drawing the public's attention towards concerns for their conservation. It seems unlikely that Discovery intends to change the style of Shark Week programming any time soon, after all, millions are tuning in, so there is clearly a demand for these types of shows. If Discovery continues to use an infotainment style, focusing on the potential violence of sharks, rather then drawing the public's attention to their declining numbers, it seems very unlikely that Shark Week will have any real value in science communication or shark conservation in the near future.
Myrick JG & Evans SD (2014). Do PSAs take a bite out of Shark Week? The effects of juxtaposing environmental messages with violent images of shark attacks. Science Communication, 36: 544.