Shark Week: Making the Grade?

Discovery Channel's Shark Week 2010 rolled out its 23'rd season Sunday night. Since its inception, it's evolved, devolved, stagnated and evolved yet again. As a known advocate for smart and effective shark conservation, and someone who spends a lot of time talking with the media about sharks, I decided to give Shark Week a grade this year.

Over the years, depending on the content, I've liked, disliked, enjoyed, ignored and supported it so my evaluations won't be based on this year alone or made without years of experience working hands on with sharks within the production and entertainment arenas. Despite that, I will make a conscious effort to remain unbiased.

Regardless of changes in the series over the years, or whatever I thought of it, two things remain constant:

1) High ratings delivered by ravenously dedicated viewers and

2) Plenty of eager advertisers lining up to get screen time with the sharks, thus we've enjoyed twenty-three years of Shark Week ...

It defines a successful symbiotic relationship within the entertainment industry. Last year, the presenting sponsor was the somewhat unlikely air freshener and odor eliminator, Febreze. Obviously, Shark Week is a producer, distributor and marketer's dream format. Ironically, this also makes it one of the most accurate barometers that exist for what the larger general public perception of sharks actually is. On that note, and from a purely marketing standpoint, I found the new campaign of 'Happy Shark Week' pretty damn close to brilliant. If you didn't know any better, you might think this week was some new National Holiday. Just look at that logo. Makes you want to grill some hot dogs or run through a sprinkler, doesn't it?

That's also why Shark Week is a hot button controversy magnet for many in the shark conservation world. The real hard liners don't like Shark Week ... at all, to the point of petitioning online for boycotts of the programming or even Discovery Channel altogether. I'm not sure what fractional piece of the 20+ million viewers these dedicated activists are, but a quick guess deems it negligible.

Their overall position is that Discovery Channel and Shark Week, in particular, is nothing more than cheap, denigrating and libelous shark porn. For me, that's a clear indication they're not giving the viewing public, who also happen to be their fellow citizens and consumers, enough credit for their own good judgment or intelligence.

On the other side of this quiet protest, all around the world, its unanimous that people are crazy about their sharks. I'm not talking about hysterically fearful or hateful in their craziness, but overwhelmingly fanatical, almost like NASCAR or NFL fans can get, and we're talking everyone from little kids to grandparents. Love it or hate it, Shark Week is good for sharks. We need to get to the grade for the opening night of 2010's installment, but just a couple thoughts to ponder for the critics whose main complaint is how sharks are relentlessly depicted as 'viscous man-eaters' by the Discovery Channel.

Is there really any way to sugar coat injurious or even sometimes deadly encounters between humans and wild animals, be it bears, crocodiles, snakes or sharks? Unfortunate, each and every one of these incidents, but wildlife is what it is ... wild and worthy of our respect. Let's not try and convince ourselves or anyone else otherwise. If the critics would get past some of the Shark Week titles like this Tuesday's 'Shark Bite Beach' and listen to how bite survivors almost unanimously make statements like, 'I don't hate the shark for what it did to me', and the protest argument would surely evolve. By the way, at least they didn't call it, 'Shark ATTACK Beach', right? That should make some of you happy.

Just like JAWS, any kind of shark programming or content, runs the risk of glamorizing some of what sharks do best, and have been doing for about 400 million years. It's a double-edged sword. Sharks are amazing animals that also happen to be among the world's top predators. We're not talking about squirrels, here. Sharks have real star power. They're mesmerizing to look at and fascinating to learn about, and yes, a handful of the 500 + species can be dangerous to humans, given the wrong set of circumstances. Some would still call Shark Week demonizing, but the other blade on that double-edged sword is this.

Shark Week reignites the world's interest in sharks on an annual basis, and from that flows the conversations. Whether you're amongst the most staunch shark conservation activists, a recreational angler or just a kid who loves stuff like sharks and pirates, those conversations are an opportunity to raise your own awareness, pursue your conservation agenda or maybe just allow yourself to be entertained. My Godson, by the way, is wild about both sharks and pirates, and he's got good parents and me to keep it all in perspective. That's really our job, not the Discovery Channel's. That said, Shark Week isn't perfect, either, what is? Anyway ... no one should allow a television content distributor to do their thinking for them or their kids.

Speaking of pirates, that just made me think of something. Blackbeard and Calico Jack wouldn't necessarily win top choice for role models by their very definition and official record, but Pirates of the Caribbean is a multi-billion dollar entertainment franchise, and my guess is an awful lot of eye-patches and plastic swords are sold every, single Halloween by parents. It's not really such a fine line between entertainment and reality. Not hard to figure out. To all you Shark Week critics, one final note. The millions of people that tune in to watch Shark Week every year really are smarter than you think.

For more on the topic of sharks, their media-generated PR image, and why I think Discovery Channel and Shark Week is good for sharks, read my piece, 'Exploiting Wildlife for its Own Good'.

Now, the Opening Night Grade ...

New Content for 2010 Day 1, Sunday August 1st:

photo: Discovery Channel

Ultimate Air Jaws

'Ultimate Air Jaws' Show Description:

World-renowned shark photographer Chris Fallows uses high-tech cameras to track the incredible agility and velocity of Air Jaws, a flying great white shark. The expedition reveals these sharks spend a lot of time near tourists in South Africa.


Producer & Writer, Jeff Kurr, intentionally raised the bar on this one, but not just for sheer daredevil stunting, as much as for pioneering wildlife documentation techniques. The show's host, Chris Fallows was a good match for this episode, and it was obvious he was also ready to turn the dial on his long-established interactive documentation techniques all the way to eleven. The perspective that 1000 frames per second shot from such close proximity to breaching great whites provided was well worth staring at. This natural predation technique takes about a second in real time, but when this blink of an eye sequence is slowed down to a minute, the finely tuned mechanics of this animal are revealed in all their blazing HD glory. For someone who has spent a lot of time in a kayak with sharks in the water, the combination of aerial, underwater and point-of-view shots in the yellow kayak sequence with Fallows were impressive, revealing and sobering.

The discovery that white sharks could be spending so much time that close to shore wasn't a revelation for me, but to most it would be. I was encouraged to hear Kurr's focused scripting point out the fact these animals have been sharing the same surf zone with humans, in some populated areas, for some time, with only rare incidents of interactions between sharks and people. In the end, some interesting questions were raised about the life cycle of these animals, their possible mating habits and habitats in some areas and their often curious, non-threatening nature.

Just when it seemed they topped themselves for the last time, Kurr and Fallows whipped out a few more toys from the box: the Seal Sled, the Seal Eye and the Sport Sub. I can't get enough of these kinds of innovations in wildlife documentation, and the leverage they can create to transport viewers further and further into the interactive experience with animals in their natural habitats. All those high-tech capabilities, though, are worth next to nothing without the right messaging. In this case, I think Jeff Kurr was able to combine all these elements in a way that got seized the audience's attention long enough to make them think about great white sharks in a respectful and awe-inspiring way.

MY GRADE for Ultimate Air Jaws = A

photo: Discovery Channel

Into the Shark Bite

'Into the Shark Bite' Show Description:

Go on a wild ride as we show you the LAST thing you'd ever want to see in real life: close up views of attacks by the world's most deadly sharks -- from INSIDE their mouths!


As I've said many times, I'm all for leveraging purposeful entertainment value, modern broadcast and other technologies to educate the general viewing public about wildlife, natural resource management and conservation. 'Into the Shark Bite', like 'Ultimate Air Jaws' hit on most of these elements. Mark Addision and Andy Casagrande were the featured presenters in this episode. One notable trend (so far) in this year's Shark Week is the utilization of on-screen talent experienced in some direct way with sharks, as opposed to the latest good looker from the make believe realm of television. In this case, Host / Presenters Addison and Casagrande both have cred in their respective fields and complimented each other, as well as the content.

Another conspicuous trend is the one-upsmanship game of who's going to get that 'money shot'. In this business, that's always been a goal, but its fun to watch what can be done with some competitive, ratings-driven creativity and the latest tools of the trade. That was an obvious driver with 'Into the Shark Bite'. They did get some innovative shots with the use of a variety of 'bite cams', which produced some shots you usually don't get unless a shark is high & dry and very dead. The live copepods in the white sharks were something most people would probably be completely unaware of. And then there was the dorsal fin 'clip clamp' that Addison applied to a blacktip shark. We've seen the shot and perspective before, but the application process and the device design were undeniably kickass.

I walked away inspired to up my own game of shooting sharks in the wild or any underwater footage, for that matter, and was pleased to know they were using some of the same equipment we already utilize. So there was some satisfaction on a personal / professional front and it was definitely a lot of fun to watch Addison and Casagrande push themselves to capture some of the more memorable sequences. However, aside from some interesting bite mechanic sequences, this show didn't provide the amount of 'aha, I didn't know that, but I'm glad I do now' moments I like to squeeze out of my rare time in front of the tube.

Shark Week critics, likely noted some of the sound bytes, and we'll hear surely hear about it. For instance -- Narrator: We're going to risk life, limb and some very expensive cameras. Host / Casagrande: Get out there. Risk your life for television'. Television is full of risky professional athletes, sports and other depicted activities like: NASCAR, Football, Base Jumping, The X-Games, Skiing, Big Wave Surfing, etc., etc. I'm obviously a little bias with my own background, but people like these hosts and others including athletes do this stuff for reasons they don't need to explain. Think about it, it's so extreme in some cases, doing it because they hope to inspire others to do it, just isn't part of their plan. So take it for what it's worth -- exciting, entertaining television that, in some cases, can make you think a little.

MY GRADE for Into the Shark Bite = B

BONUS GRADE: For Discovery Channel ... so far for 2010 Shark Week, based on programming, messaging, conservation efforts, marketing = B+

Here's some info on the Discovery site I checked out, after seeing one of the many Public Service Annoucements they ran, promoting shark conservation.


Stay tuned for more news and views on Shark Week 2010.