First aired on July 27, 1987, Shark Week has become an annual event. It is now broadcast in over 72 countries and last year over 30 million viewers tuned in worldwide. This is a fantastic forum to discuss the current plight of sharks, to discuss the 100,000,000 being killed each year, and to explain the latest findings from scientists and conservation groups.
But, with a line-up such as “Great White Invasion,” “Jaws Comes Home,” “Rogue Sharks,” “Top Five Eaten Alive” and “10 Deadliest Sharks,” I am not sure viewers receive a balanced understanding of shark behavior and their complex niche.
Peter Benchley’s widely-read book turned blockbuster, “Jaws,” certainly entrenched terror into people. This widespread, inaccurate and sensationalized bad public relation story was the reason behind many shark hunts and many senseless deaths. Today I still meet people who refuse to go into the ocean due to a phobia instigated by “Jaws.” Is Discovery Channel’s Shark Week merely taking this scenario to the next level, instilling fear into millions around the world? Will people be inclined to protect sharks if they believe they are merely patrolling, killing machines?
Making this an even more interesting debate, most people will never have a first-hand shark experience. Very few people have SCUBA certification, the access and the inclination that would lead them into the water to observe sharks on their own. They rely upon scientists and filmmakers to bring stories back to them.
The alternative viewpoint is interesting and strong. Why doesn’t Discovery Channel have a Butterfly Week? Clearly, this is because sharks have the capacity for drama and mystery that will keep an audience riveted for an entire week. Discovery Channel is a for-profit business. They try to attract as many people as they can to their line-up. They have a proven formula: “jaws and claws” sells.
How should Discovery Channel handle future Shark Weeks? Do they have an obligation to use some of the Shark Week exposure and momentum to educate their international audience about the exponentially growing threats? Should they dedicate time slots for public service announcements that discuss the perils of shark finning and shark fin soup?
Discovery Channel is not under any obligation to produce educational programming. They are accountable only to their shareholders. However, if they do not start using their media to shift international perspective, if they do not allocate at least a portion of their resources toward supporting governments protecting sharks, if they and others in powerful positions do not wield their success to seek out and implement solutions that will protect sharks, Discovery Channel will lose their ability to cash in on their success because Shark Week will need to be moved to the History Channel.
If you would like to do something for sharks today, please sign a petition urging the California Senate to pass AB 376 which will help stop shark finning.
Photo credit: Georgienne Bradley