Discovery Channel's Shark Week Torpedoed in Social Media

Discovery Channel's Shark Week Torpedoed in Social Media

With Shark Week viewing at a record high, no one can cast doubt on Discovery Channel’s snaring prowess.  But when you start to read the social media back story about Megalodon sharks—prehistoric, they’ve been extinct for millions of years—there also remains little uncertainty as to who’s been rapt…uhh, entrapped. 

The social media backlash stems from criticism that Shark Week has abandoned  its science-ish integrity to pseudo science and chicanery, a la Universal Studios Jaws thrill ride.  In her Salon critique, Joanna Rothkopf aptly lampooned Shark Week’s travesty in More Sharknado than science: Why Shark Week has become a bottom feeder, although she wasn’t particularly flummoxed by the producers’ formulaic treatment.  Her point: It’s another day as usual in media—it’s all about the ratings, damn the science.

And if the volume of clicks and views are your definition of a successful program, that’s the metric you sell sponsors. With meteoric ratings, it was already evident last season that Discovery Channel had no qualms this season jettisoning its original mission to deliver science-based programming, even harpooning accuracy to festoon the gore factor.  

I took a look at the social media intelligence behind the kerfuffle in NetBase Application, depicted in the chart below, which conspicuously resembled social conversation trapped in the toothy jaws of a shark—jagged at best, muddled for sure.  Looking further into why viewers are emoting so intensely (passion index: 80%), two opposing sentiment trends are revealed.  On the one hand, loathing for Discovery’s deception, shirking disclaimer truth and a real sense of viewer betrayal. On the other, blasé surrender to Discovery’s lurid new sci-fi format.

Those who remember the early mandate of Shark Week to provide educational science-based programming, are rightfully outraged by the abomination being dished out today by Discovery.  But as Rothkopf points out, after the 2013 Megalodon uproar—coupled with a historic viewer audience—Discovery had already locked it jaws onto “fantasy” Shark Week sensationalism. And the producers felt obliged to issue mere “half” disclaimers.  The longest running cable network program ever, “Shark Week” has become a pop culture phenom of sorts and even evolved as a double-entendre, read: duped, swindled, hoodwinked.

And with the launch of Shark Week seasonal programming last weekend, Discovery Channel unapologetically signaled it was sticking to its ratings-ratcheting fantasy shark formula: hoist the salacious gore, lower the boom on science.  This season’s Shark Week run has opportunistically, if not predictably, torpedoed the science, and only two of the 29 programs will feature scientists.

The social media discussion reflected in the NetBase chart below reflects both disdain for Shark Week’s pseudo-science and the glee of gore-gawking TV fantasy bottom-feeders—damn the science.  The tone of the conversations: #SharkWeek is a sham. @Discovery ruined a perfectly education week by dramatized bullshit. #sellouts.  Viewers are angry to say the least:  Shark Week isn’t just misguided, it’s downright dangerous.


In her MediaPost blog, Barbara Lippert rightfully lambastes Discovery Channel for its garish programming, echoing much of the debate now churning in social media:  A lot of the controversy bubbling up maintains that the Discovery programming is too focused on inaccurate, tabloid-style sensationalism, when it could be promoting conservation and education. 

Lippert also foresees a trend in new shark hashtag coinage, such as #fakesharkweek, as we also discovered in our NetBase Application Twitter analysis below. I also anticipate #extrasharky and #megalodonlives being introduced into our pop culture lexicon, maybe even Webster.  A new mythology, too, has been spawned with #fakesharkweekfacts: 

Contrary to popular belief, #sharknados don’t exist as sharks prefer the embracing warmth of forest fires.

Thresher sharks are mis-named. It’s actually Thrasher Shark. They’re huge thrash metal fans.

No one wants to be friends with the megamouth shark because it’s just the biggest gossip.


All of this has created a conundrum for me. When your impressionable 9-year-old BFF texting niece tells you she’s studying sharks, with special interest in the Megalodon—the existence of which she’s bought hook, line and sinker—how do you break it to her that the monster shark is actually extinct? A media fake? A lie, god forbid! Isn’t it like telling her that Santa Claus doesn’t exist?! Well, that’s what it felt like.

When I told her about Discovery Channel’s “exaggeration,” she insisted: People do not know for sure. I have done a lot [of reading] about megalodon and I found some one said it is real but they need more information.  When I argued the science, she retorted: There are many species still being discovered in the deep ocean. The Megalodon is a probability. People have not gone that deep in the water….I think he is on the earth…Some day if he is real some one may find him. And to my argument that people do make up fiction, especially on TV, she replied: I am wanting to look him up now I am going to do reaserch on him when I am at the beach. But he is deep down in the ocean…he still may be on earth and the water he may be on it. 

She promised to report back on her research.