Why Shark Week is Now Utter ‘Bull Shark’: A Shark Lover’s Frustration with the Latest TV Sell Out

By John Artenstein,

Jaws“The torso has been severed in mid-thorax. There are no major organs remaining…The right arm has been severed above the elbow with massive tissue loss in the upper musculature…Partially denuded bone remaining. This was no boat accident. Did you notify the Coast Guard about this?…Well, this is not a boat accident, and it wasn’t any propeller, it wasn’t any coral reef, and it wasn’t Jack the Ripper. It was a shark.”

So says Oceanographic Institute shark expert Matt Hooper, in Stephen Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975). In the decades since the landmark film (which grossed $470 million, breaking the standing record) the United States – hell, the world – has been overtaken by two depictions of the shark. The first, unsurprisingly, was the horror. Not even I, first introduced to the film at the age of 3, can bear to keep my eyes on the screen during the scene where, while Chief Brody and Hooper investigate his boat, the head of fisherman Ben Gardner falls through the hull and down to the sea floor. Only recently was I, at last, able to keep my head angled at the TV screen while Bruce – the name given by the filmmakers to the mechanical shark featured in the film – devours Quint, the clear water flooding his own vessel replaced with what looks like the blood of ten men. All this, I say without hesitation, is intended. After all, “Jaws” is ultimately a well-crafted, suspenseful and thrilling horror film. And, given the state of special effect in 1974-75, I can’t accuse it of anything else.

The Give and Take of Popular Media: The joy that “Jaws” brought was quickly outweighed by the brutal and unsurprising response from the rest of the uneducated world. Sharks became Public Enemy Number One. Notorious shark hunter Vic Hislop, who most famously caught and killed a 22-foot Great White Shark off the west coast of Australia in 1982 (followed by thousands more), wrote in his self-published children’s book, SharkMan, “Surely the creator must have realized the terrible imbalance and injustice and must have put me here to help and restore the balance and justice for all the gentle creatures of the sea” (1993). Hislop has been largely excluded from any shark-related media, believed to be too extreme in both theory and practice. Unfortunately, Vic Hislop was not the only one. In the years after “Jaws,” shark hunting and competitive shark fishing became so popular that the populations of many species dwindled to anywhere from ten to fifty percent.

Thankfully for us shark aficionados, the years of gruesome and warrantless shark killings were met by the profound interests of science. With sharks being systematically exterminated, it became very clear that there was more to these now-endangered creatures than met the eye; jaw-dropping evolutionary advantages and biological developments that made it possible for sharks to survive at the top of the aquatic food chain. In the past two decades or so, sharks have fittingly become the most popular form of marine life for scientific study.

Creation and Evolution of Shark Week: With this rise of the popularity of sharks in the minds of laypeople and scientists alike, more and more is being learned about their psychology and physiology, their mating and migrating patterns, and, most relevant to PR concerns, what attracts “man eaters” to feed on bathers off our coasts from time to time. The amalgam of all this research has effectively reduced the human fatality rate due to shark attacks from around 50 percent to about 10 percent.

CUE SHARK WEEK.

First aired in July of 1987, The Discovery Channel’s once-a-year “Shark Week” programming was developed to raise awareness and reverence for sharks, not fear. For over two decades, Shark Week broadcasted features about attack survivors – aimed at understanding the circumstances leading to attacks, and preventing them from occurring – or historical fictions, meant to play upon the folklore fears of imaginative children. Then there were the catching-and-tagging programs, featured at least once a year: a team of fishermen and shark experts venture out into well-known shark spots, reel in and tag a shark, often a large female, in order to track and learn about its mating, migratory, and birthing habits. And, of course, for the viewers’ entertainment, specials like “Air Jaws,” feature an ambiguous and uninformative exploration of the breaching Great Whites off the coast of South Africa, in and around the Cape of Good Hope, and infamously, Seal Island. The sharks often use their bus-like momentum to propel their two-plus ton bodies wholly out of the water, seal(s) in jaws.

However, this year as my family sat down, along with my brother (a new member of our little shark society), to catch a glimpse of Day 1’s feature – the subject of which we formulaically leave to be surprised each year – we hadn’t been warned to first jump in a shark cage. Or, better yet, just to jump into tiger shark-infested waters in the middle of a pool of chum before it could begin.

The De-Evolution of Shark Week: We have a new Shark Week on our hands. It’s a shark week made by clever marketing executives with little to no interest in sharks. A shark week made for uneducated, uninspired reality TV fans and Twitter followers. A shark week that debuts with a feature entitled “Megalodon” – which, admittedly, excited me greatly. I hoped to learn more about the most feared (and certainly the most badass) oceanic carnivore in recent Earthly history, a subject that has captivated me for years.

But that’s not what happened.

Megalodon_scale.svg

“Size comparison of Carcharodon carcharias (Great White Shark, 5.2m), Rhincodon typus (Whale Shark, 9.7m) and conservative/maximum estimates of the largest known adult size of Carcharodon megalodon (16-20m), with a human Homo sapiens (1.8m).”

Instead, I was greeted by some dude who called himself a scientist, who presented his hypothesis, which, absurd as it was, tragically, was the least heinous element of the special. He suggested that Carcharodon megalodon, a 60-foot, 10-ton, distant ancestor of the Great White shark with a tooth the size of a football that lived 1.5 million years ago was 1) Not extinct, and 2) Responsible for a recent boating accident that may or may not have involved a large predator. And then, he gathered a team of scientists and fishing experts to “catch” and “tag” the Megalodon as if it were a porpoise or a seal…or anything that would be less likely to eat his boat. It should be mentioned that no credible ichthyologist gives any credence to the suggestion that Megalodon still exists.

This is all clearly a very unsubtle attempt by Discovery to direct Shark Week at a new audience: the enormous, Reality TV audience. That’s why they followed “Megalodon” with “Voodoo Shark,” featuring the guys from “Pawn Stars.”

Concluding Thoughts: Listen, I’m a huge fan of Shark Week. And of sharks. Anything that will bring about a more complete understanding of these great creatures in the minds of the vastly unaware public would be great. But it seems my sentiment is not shared by the producers of Shark Week anymore. They’ve sold out like the History Channel. I’m just waiting for the Shark Week episode that’s merged with the new season of “Ice Road Truckers.”

But it’s not just the fact of selling out. It’s also about taste and impatience. Why is making reality TV out of documentary-worthy information considered a proper avenue for generating advertising sales? Because, frankly, nobody cares. Seldom might you come across a person who can sit for an hour in front of a television screen, focused on the details of the Port Jackson shark’s digestion, or the Wobbegong’s camouflage. This is part of a much larger cultural detraction, and one I must, sadly, blame on the internet. The availability of information has wholly eliminated the need for interactive, intelligent, informative non-fiction television, as well as any discipline or focus in taking in information or being inspired to search it out.

Wobbegong

A Spotted Wobbegong shark (Orectolobus maculatus)

Such a problem cannot be rectified without manipulating the purpose or use of the people’s treasured Web, which clearly is not about to happen. Instead, we’re left to beg Shark Week and other programs not to turn their back on us.

Shark Week used to be a cherished element of thought and coolness for the American public. Now it’s just another week of nonsensical reality TV promoted for those whose attention spans were too short to begin with. The old days of learning and thinking in general are all but gone. In some elements it’s been for the better, in others for the worse. Whether you have faith that we’ll adapt, we must make this change, for the sake of our marine brethren, with greater haste.

It’s not fair. I say this is bullshit.  It’s just a theory that I happen to…agree with.

John Artenstein (Quinnipiac University)
John ArtenstienJohn is an undergraduate at Quinnipiac University, studying English, Philosophy, and Acting. He is an essayist, actor, poet, debater, songwriter and a recording artist. He is a co-author (under a pen name) of the short story collections Campfire Tales: The Most Terrifying Stories Ever Told and has appeared on the stage and on film in a number of roles. His career spans from Los Angeles to New York and from south Florida to Connecticut, where he is currently writing essays on faith, the digital revolution, and the human experience, as well as the music for his latest CD of original works.

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