Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Watch out for the real shark enemies...

Shark legend "Doc" Samuel Gruber freediving at Tiger Beach
(Photograph: Wolfgang Leander)

Click on the image to enlarge

Shark Diver recently posted a blog that was somewhat disturbing. I have obtained some background information on this from another source, and am afraid to say that the production company that is aggressively pursuing the subjects they have put together as their shoot list for 2009 is the same company that sold the Discovery Channel a misleading and rather sensationalistic film about tiger shark "attack behavior" shot at Tiger Beach late in 2007.

I saw that film, as did millions and millions others, and felt thoroughly disgusted by the "experiments" these folks did with the tiger sharks.

Here we have the Discovery Channel with their hugely popular Shark Week. Over the years, the quality of these features, presented as entertaining and at the same time 'educational' documentaries, has been going down alarmingly. So much so that a group of dedicated shark conservationists decided to approach the Discovery Channel executives toward the middle of 2007 with a view to induce them to stop portraying sharks in the best of "Jaws" tradition.

Preceding the meeting with some top people of the Discovery Channel in April 2008 was a petition directed to them - the message was crystal clear.
Click here to read it.

The impression the shark delegation had after the meeting was that, yes, the Discovery Channel would endeavor to give the sharks more of the credit they so much deserve now that the general public is slowly beginning to realize that many species are being hunted down to the brink of extinction.

Unfortunately, the 2008 Shark Week features were already 'boxed', so everybody was hoping to see an improvement in this year's Shark Week.

While we have no idea what will be shown in 2009, we can expect that it will be pretty much more of the same. One of the titles will be
"Deadly Waters" - what else is new?....

The production company in question has only one goal in mind: Shoot something as catchy as possible, never mind the accuracy of the "documentary", never mind the truthfulness of the message on which they base their "experiments". This company will do almost anything to show the sharks in the worst possible light because they know, the sharper the teeth, the juicier the deal they will get.

What is really deplorable other than
wilfully misleading the public, perhaps as many as many as 100 million TV viewers around the globe (!!), is the fact that it is they who attack the sharks without any mercy thus thwarting the conservationists' relentless efforts to de-demonize the sharks.

By vilifying the sharks these irresponsible producers implicitly perpetuate the old saying: Only a dead shark is a good shark, whereas we, the ludicrous "green nuts", are desperately trying to spread the message that all sharks are good, especially the ones that are still alive...

These producers, and others like them, not the majority, are definitely the bad guys; they are the real enemies of the sharks.

So, what about the Discovery Channel? Are they also the bad guys? I wouldn't go as far as that judging them - but they are certainly
not the good guys they could be.

If they were, they would not buy "documentaries" without closely scrutinizing them in a professional manner. But maybe they don't know better. Well, could that really be?? Hard to imagine...

What the Discovery marketing pros have to do is to keep the attention level of their viewers high because of the advertising business they depend on (it's all about ratings, ratings, ratings), hence the hype they are convinced is needed without really giving the negative aspects of distorted information much thought.

That, I believe, is the crux: How to find the right balance between suspenseful entertainment without falling in the trap of cheap sensationalism, and imparting solid, enlightening facts which in my view do not have to be dry at all if presented in an engaging way, both artisitically and technically.

Two suggestions come to my mind:

First: As a test, the Discovery Channel should show one feature of sharks focusing exclusively on their beauty, their paramount importance as apex predators, and the imminent peril of extinction many species are facing mainly due to the ever growing appetite of the Chinese and other Asians for their fins.

A "Sharkwater" type of documentary without the irritating ego element that devalued the otherwise praiseworthy movie. No attacks, no blood, no gaping jaws - just the serene world of sharks to gauge the reception by the viewers.

I simply refuse to believe a priori that blood draws more attention than beauty. It is an assumption that would need to be corroborated.

Second: The Discovery Channel should intensify the dialogue with knowledgeable shark people, and involve them in an ad hoc advisory committee for the specific purpose of screening the Shark Week features offered to them by independent film and TV production companies.

If we want to make -
and see - a difference, all of us in the shark world - writers, film producers, photographers, shark dive operators, media pros, researchers, aficionados - have the responsibility and the moral imperative to respect the sharks, depict them how they really are, and be as little invasive as possible when entering their realm, be it for recreational or scientific reasons.

One last thought -

It is perfectly OK to make good money with sharks while furthering their cause; it is not OK at all to make money exploiting them in any way.


Shark Diver said...

That's about as concise as it get's Wolf. Thanks for pointing out a solution.

I would agree that a Shark Czar or Shark Group could greatly improve DC production values with sharks.

Time will tell if they are serious about enabling these changes.

Loosing a shoot site in Fiji was a first step.

Supporting operations that DO NOT kowtow to these kind of productions a next.

RTSea said...

Please realize that Discovery acquires very few, if any, completed productions. Instead, production companies pitch the networks, the networks buy into the concept (or modify to suit their "audience") and agree to fund it, and the production gets made with considerable input from the networks.

So it all works hand in hand. The production companies will tell you that they are simply providing the kind of programming that the networks want.

My film, Island of the Great White Shark, was considered last year as possible "alternative programming" but they eventually passed on it. Maybe I should have included the words "shark attack" in the narration!

And if dive operators or tourism boards shut out the production companies, remember that Discovery has a 21-year old library of shark programming to draw from.

Wolf is right - it's ratings, ratings, ratings. We need to 1.) impact the ratings (If you don't like it, don't watch. If you watched and hated it, you still contributed to the ratings.) and 2.) reach the advertisers (They need to know there is a growing groundswell of public awareness).

Jonathan said...

When I did my film for Nat Geo Channel on pelagic sharks a couple years ago, I had to fight hard with them to keep it scientific and non-sensational. They very much wanted a "shark week-like" program. When it was all said and done, I was pretty happy with how it came out, but clearly the EP was less than thrilled by the lack of sensationalism. It is very hard these days to get a network to buy into a classic-style nature film. I'm not making excuses for these guys--I hate this kind of sensationalism as much as you. Every year they have to out-do themselves, or viewers get bored and move on. The fact is that shark week has been going 20+ years and they have pretty much done everything! The only way to kick it up a notch is to essentially invent ridiculous stories!


Wolf Leander said...

Jonathan - you are 100% right, so is Richard (RTSea).

I have seen both your movies, and was very impressed. With them you prove that it is possible to avoid the usual sensationalism and completely captivate your audience.

Richard - I agree: You show great white sharks swimming coolly and majestically - the way they are when not overly agitated by too much chum and bait.

And I will not forget the incredible shots of thresher sharks you had in your documentary, Jonathan. Great movie!!

Shark Week is indeed running out of good stories. That is probably the reason they now have to resort to the most ridiculous, sub-standard "Myth Busters" crap.

Jupp said...

I think it is a tragedy that the production companies and the networks have to lie to their viewers in order to compete. What kind of a world are we living in, where the liars and cheaters are in charge because they control much of the media and make money with such ridiculous stories? What happened to the truth? I guess it’s not newsworthy anymore.
Remember the Discovery film “Ocean of Fear”? They didn’t have the decency to tell the truth; instead they were stupid enough to interview some survivors of the USS Indianapolis. Only one of them said that he had seen a sailor get bitten by a shark. Not a dozen and certainly not hundreds.
I read two books, one by the chief medical officer of the USS Indianapolis Dr. Haynes and one by a guy called Woody. Both were survivors of the tragedy. They mentioned sharks but they too did not talk about massacres by sharks.
Discovery Channel is fooling their viewers by telling lies to make money and everybody who participates in this, has no conscience either.
The more people know how Discovery works, the less will take “Shark Week” seriously and hopefully one day they will not have enough viewers left to make their fake “documentaries” worth while.
I have told many people that Shark Week has nothing to do with the truth and I will continue doing so.
Jupp Kerckerinck

Wolf Leander said...


Spot on!!

The Discovery liars and cheaters interviewed George Burgess as an "expert" on shark attacks in¨"Ocean of Fear" (The Indianapolis File).

It was pitiful to hear George commenting on the "worst shark attack" ever - but as you clearly said, participating in such "documentaries" makes you an accomplice of the cheaters and liars.

Imaging Foundation said...

Discovery is a business. RTSea hit it on the head. The general business model embraced by Discovery is to fund productions that they think will suit their needs.

Nat Geo, BBC all the factual programming outlets work the same. To make things more complicated, few productions are now being made that are cot "Co-productions". This means that several production backers need to sign on to fund a give show. Perhaps Discovery and New Zealand... or other interested, but noncompeting companies.

So, unfortunately, the networks are buying programming that sells. We are constantly being told to "dumb it down" so many quality ideas are being turned down because they do not have the jaws and claws.

Perhaps one answer is to replace fire with fire. See what sells. Speak their language. Sea Shepherd is doing a great job with Whale Wars. The are replacing the biting action with search and rescue action.. and somewhere along the line they are slipping in conservation messages...

Jupp said...

If you cheat and lie in business, you will get prosecuted and you may end up in jail. When the media cheats and lies "it is business". There are few people like Wolf, who have the guts to say otherwise. We always have an excuse for the networks and the production companies because "it suits their needs". Are we all hypocrites who embrace those double standards just because it is "The Media"?
Jupp Kerckerinck