Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Shark Week: annual event reaches the quarter century mark

Once again, it's that time of year.  No, not the seasonal dusting off of your flip flops or scrounging around for those beach chairs and umbrella.  No, it's that annual ritual known as Shark Week.  Discovery Communications has launched its press kit for the series slated for August and the news outlets are eating it up like a ravenous you-know-what.

This season marks the 25th airing of the week-long slate of shows.  Imagine, an entire quarter century of shark-related programming.  That is a testament to the enduring fascination that people have with sharks, a fascination that has kept the series continually profitable for Discovery Communications.  And it would appear there's no end in sight.

Discovery has endured much criticism from shark advocates over many, if not most, of the programs produced over the years.  And there is no getting around it: many of the shows have played on the audience's fear of sharks, focusing on shark attacks and perpetuating certain myths or half-truths.  And why is that?  Quite simply, because television is a business and Discovery shrewdly knows who their core audience is, who it is that helps to support the advertising fees that the network charges.  And it's not the shark advocates - they only make up a very small portion of the 30+ million viewers who tune in each year.  In fact, I contend that the more the critics complain, the more Discovery knows they are appealing to their most profitable audience.

The slate of programs for this year is an interestingly mixed bag.  Some, like Shark Week's 25 Best Bites or Sharkzilla are designed to stimulate the fear factor, while others seem to be geared towards content a bit more substantial - exciting entertainment mixed with some historical or scientific  information.  As I reviewed the lineup with a somewhat cynical eye, I actually found myself intrigued with several of the programs on tap.  

As listed by Entertainment Weekly:
How Jaws Changed the World  “From the importance of music scores to special effects, from natural history to human behavior — careers were made and lives were altered with the feature film. Meet the people impacted by a single shark that changed the world.”
Shark Fight  Not what you think! This special actually focuses on shark-attack survivors who’ve become shark advocates and fight to save them.
Great White Highway  In partnership with Discovery, Dr. Barbara Block, professor of marine sciences at Stanford University, has developed new tagging technology that allows her to track great whites in real-time. “They can track where the sharks are migrating, where they are meeting and possibly mating, and maybe eventually where they go to give birth — something that continues to elude scientists.”

In co-production with the BBC, Discovery Communications has presented some amazing programs like Blue Planet or Frozen Planet.  However, with attention-deficient audiences willingly tuning in to low-budget, contrived reality shows of the lowest common denominator, the Discovery Channel - as well as other channels like National Geographic or Animal Planet - will stick primarily with programming that excites viewers, keeps advertisers happy, and continues to infuriate those who remember when nature programs were truly educational.  It's a business.  It's economics.  

Perhaps the future for educational media lies outside of the advertiser-broadcaster revenue model.  Educational filmmakers will need to investigate the full potential of online or mobile media formats.  So, break out the popcorn for Shark Week and maybe save your thinking cap for your iPad.

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