Reality Check: When Shark Week and News Networks Are No Longer Trusted Sources for Just the Facts

By  · Published on August 6th, 2013

Just as with box office figures, you can’t always gauge actual popularity from TV ratings. For example, on Sunday night Discovery Channel earned its greatest Shark Week ratings ever in the event’s 26 years. But a whole lot of longtime fans of the annual programming stunt aren’t happy with what they watched: a feature-length “documentary” about how prehistoric megalodons are still around, millions of years after they’ve been believed to be extinct. This special, titled Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, was all fake, fairly obviously so, yet there was hardly a disclaimer stating such.

Some were fooled, others felt like they were meant to be fooled and many simply found it completely counter to what they expect from both the channel and the event. Viewers angrily took to the network’s Facebook page to complain. Wil Wheaton called for an apology. Science writers criticized the content choice for further harming the very sort of conservation efforts Shark Week originally intended to support. But hey, Discovery got what they wanted.

While not surprising, this sort of ratings-grab programming is a real shame. With hundreds and hundreds of cable channels out there, there should remain room for a channel founded and long depended on for educational shows and other works of scientifically based nonfiction. The same goes for Animal Planet (also owned by Discovery Communications), which has gotten similar flack for airing “documentary” specials on mermaids being potentially real, and barely acknowledging themselves as being fictional – disclaimers hidden enough that people have labeled the specials “hoaxes.”

At least megalodons are a kind of shark? Who even would classify mermaids as “animals” in the way Animal Planet’s name means? Should we just expect this sort of thing in a time when cable channel names are meaningless anyway (see IFC, AMC, MTV, History, etc.)? Or should there be some greater distinction between outlets selling fiction and those selling nonfiction, maybe even a law akin to the parts of the Federal Trade Commission Act on truth in advertising?

Okay, that’s probably too much, but it would be great for those who love nonfiction programming to have channels still suited to them. It’s just not a good time, apparently. In fact, last week the Documentary Channel, credited as America’s first 24-hour TV network devoted solely to documentaries, went off the air (in full disclosure, I worked in part for this cable station for the past two years). The New York Times labeled it a “failure.” Not that it was available to everyone nor widely known about, but still this can all be blamed on the theory that there isn’t enough of an audience demand for a documentary channel.

At least the replacement isn’t lacking in docs. That would be Pivot, a new network launched by Participant Media (An Inconvenient Truth; Lincoln). Because of who owns it, their nonfiction programming is understandably more on the issue side. They’ve got a lot of carry over from the Documentary Channel library, and then they’ll be showing their own works, like the childhood hunger doc A Place at the Table as well as acquisitions like the excellent, underrated Anonymous history We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists.

Of course, they also have fiction programming, and so I have seen some complaints from the fanbase of the defunct channel. But then, there were also complaints in the past about certain docs on the Documentary Channel being considered not informative enough or too much like propaganda or long form commercial. There’s just no easy pleasing the broad spectrum of expectations about documentaries, nonfiction programs and reality television.

Another good example is with a new cable-based outlet for documentaries: CNN. Earlier this year, the Cable News Network began adding nonfiction films to their schedule, and the latest to air has been met with controversy for being a rather impressionistic rather than entirely truthful work. The film is Penny Lane’s Our Nixon, a chronological collage of Richard Nixon’s years as President mostly comprised of Super 8 films shot by aides John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman and Dwight Chapin along with the audio from the Nixon White House tapes. As Criticwire’s Sam Adams observed, many reviews of the film tied to the broadcast premiere treated it as something that should have been more trustworthy and expositional. After all, we tune in to CNN for 24 hour news coverage, not creative nonfiction.

Our Nixon has also been attacked by Chapin and by a fellow former part of the Nixon Administration, Ben Stein (yes, that Ben Stein), because of its liberties. I’m not a huge fan of the doc – I must have missed the point of it – but I never fault a documentary film for taking some artistic license. Still, I think some of the criticized editing choices are indeed misleading given that there is a definite chronological structure and context to most of it, and I don’t really blame many viewers for expecting a different kind of documentary on this particular network. CNN may as well have shown Oliver Stone’s Nixon for all the criticisms the airing has received.

Nonfiction television has gone through plenty of controversial revelations. We’ve overcome the issues with scripted and staged and prodded and controlled “reality TV” situations, and these kinds of shows are still hugely popular. Most of it, however, is that the point and effect of those programs remains regardless of any manipulation. We still voyeuristically ogle celebrity culture and follow along with competitions of skill, talent, romance, etc., and (here’s the one I can admit to) we still enjoy peeks at real estate around the world and consider which of three homes we’d choose even if each participating buyer on House Hunters actually already owns the house they’re shown picking at the end.

If Discovery Channel and Animal Planet don’t want to be bound by facts and science anymore and if CNN doesn’t want to be trusted for just presenting factual news anymore, that’s all fine. They might just want to be more up front with their viewers that they’re exploring new programming options for the sake of boosting their ratings, because the point and effect of Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives is not what Shark Week is about to a lot of people and the point and effect of Our Nixon is not what CNN is about to a lot of people. Those people, though, also need to get used to the fact that cable television is becoming ever more homogenous and based in fabrication, and it requires more awareness of what any program on any channel actually is before tuning in.

Eventually we’ll no longer have channels that give us the news, the weather, the proceedings of Congress or anything else we’ve depended on for 30 years of fact-based cable content. Maybe we’ll just have to read newspapers and books again. And Barnes and Noble can take over as the outlet for Shark Week.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.