Shark Week originally premiered on the Discovery Channel on July 17, 1988. It is broadcast in either July or August, annually. It is the longest running cable television programming event in history and is broadcast in 72 countries. During 2014 Shark Week, this pop phenomenon scored the highest ratings in its 27 year history. There is a diversion of opinions on whether the popularity of these shows translates into support of conservation efforts for the shark population.
It was originally developed to educate, raise awareness and respect for sharks, but that has been replaced by entertainment oriented programming that plays up blood, attacks on humans and outlandish tales. Critics were particularly upset when in 2013 one of the featured shows “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives,” claimed that a gigantic species of shark that has been extinct for thousands of years was still alive. They followed that in 2014 with the sequel called “Megalodon: New Evidence.”
Peter Knights of Wild Aid, in a recent NPR program said that Shark Week does much more to harm sharks than it does to help them by portraying them as man-eaters. Conservationists and educators have been trying to dispel this reputation for years. This kind of fear mongering can affect the public’s perception of sharks and willingness to conserve them. Last year there were only 72 unprovoked shark attacks on humans worldwide and 23 of them were in Florida.
In a St. Augustine Record article Dr. George Burgess, the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research said that he understands that the point of Shark Week is to attract viewers but wishes there wasn’t so much pseudo science. “Sharks are so fascinating all by themselves that you don’t have to play these cards”. “Let’s try to get a more level headed and even handed (view). Let’s talk about the real story, and the real story is they (sharks) are under duress.” Burgess doesn’t feel Shark Week is all bad as it keeps sharks that he says have been decimated by overfishing in the news.
The Discovery Channel, in its defense said “While we may sometimes disagree on approach, the importing thing is we use this as a platform to get the word out about sharks which our @why sharks matter does very effectively.” In a press release about Shark Week, the network said that they also play a role in conservation in their partnership with non-profit groups such as Oceana and Ghost Fishing.
While many of today’s and future marine biologists may first become interested in marine biology while watching Shark Week programs it may be advisable not to rely on the program for scientific information about sharks.