OUR TIES TO THE SHARK
My Sweet, Let Me Tell You About The Shark
Michael Phelps cannot out-swim a great white. Wow. We would have been even less surprised at the discovery that one in four sharks is a vegan named Dennis. And so began Shark Week 2017, which The Guardian has characterized as “a US pastime that’s up there with baseball and apple pie.” This year, viewers were lured into the shallows by a race between Acapulco-gold medalist Michael Phelps and Carcharodon carcharias. “High hopes turned to disappointment,” winced Vincent Mather at The New York Times. “The program seemed about as realistic as a sharknado.”
Did anyone really expect it to be otherwise? And there’s more. Joe Otterson at Variety reports that Discovery is defending both their decision not to pit Phelps against a real live shark, and the content of their pre-series promotion.
“Viewers were upset, believing that Phelps was going to get into the water with a real shark. CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish wrote on Twitter, “Turns out ‘Michael Phelps races a shark’ was really just ‘Michael Phelps swims alone and then compares his time to a shark’s time.’” Others chimed in as well, saying they felt “robbed” or misled about the special.”
The Shark Week series was launched in 1988, when Discovery Channel was three years-old and still ostensibly aiming to inform and educate viewers.
In its early years, the channel’s focus centered on educational programming in the form of cultural and wildlife documentaries, and science and historical specials. … In 1988, the channel premiered the nightly program World Monitor (produced by The Christian Science Monitor). … The channel began to shift its focus in the early 2000s to attract a broader audience, by incorporating more reality-based series focusing on automotive, occupations, and speculative investigation series… Some critics said such shows strayed from Discovery’s intention of providing more educationally based shows aimed at helping viewers learn about the world around them. In 2005, Discovery changed its programming focus to include more popular science and historical themes. The network’s ratings eventually recovered in 2006 [Wikipedia].
The premiere in 1988 of Shark Week may well mark the point when Discovery shifted from edification to edu-tainment. Jake Nevins at The Guardian is spot-on in characterizing the shark as “a 4,000lb Tony Soprano who is perfect for prime-time TV.” When it comes to making a mashup of science and shock-value, great whites may well be the ultimate in aggressively low-hanging fruit.
“It’s this kind of sensationalism – or downright conspiracism – that has bumped up against the original intentions of Shark Week, which were conservation and science- based. Therein lies the central paradox of Shark Week, which drives massive viewership to Discovery which, in turn, sells uber-lucrative advertisements.”
We suspect that the annual broadcast of Shark Week results in a concomitant uptick in, among other things, the number of Google-searches about sharks. If nothing else, Shark Week 2017 is blood in the water for new-media journalists. Our favorite commentary so far is by Susannah Evans Comfort writing in Fortune:
“Unsurprisingly, watching Shark Week makes you scared of sharks. That’s what I found in a study I did with Jessica Gall Myrick where we asked over 500 people to watch clips of Shark Week of varying levels of violence, from extremely disturbing (the only clear clip the Discovery Channel has in three decades of filming of someone getting severely bitten by a shark, rarely aired anymore) to straightforward images of sharks swimming. Viewers were scared of the sharks after watching the footage, no matter how violent or peaceful….But what about the facts? The facts say that you should be more scared of a mosquito than of a shark. You should be more scared of a bicycle or a vending machine.”
Professor Comfort may be tuning-in. “I think I will watch, and you should too. It’s just plain good entertainment.”
But is it? We think not. Shark Week isn’t trash television, but neither is it a red-herring. Shark Week is what we get in this age of data-driven programming. Bottom-feeders attract predators — and nobody wins.
Three Ways to Celebrate Sharks
Enjoy John Ciardi’s poems about sharks
“About the Teeth of Sharks”
The thing about a shark is—teeth,
One row above, one row beneath.
Now take a close look. Do you find
It has another row behind?
Still closer—here, I’ll hold your hat:
Has it a third row behind that?
Now look in and…Look out! Oh my,
I’ll never know now! Well, goodbye.
My sweet, let me tell you about the Shark
Though his eyes are bright, his thought is dark.
He’s quiet – that speaks well of him.
So does the fact that he can swim.
But though he swims without a sound,
Wherever he swims he looks around
With those two bright eyes, prideful stroke
And one dark thought.
He has only one but he thinks it a lot.
And the thought he thinks but can never complete
Is his long dark thought of something to eat.
Most anything does.
And I have to add
That when he eats, his manners are bad.
He’s a gulper, a ripper, a snatcher, a grabber.
Yes, his manners are drab. But his thought is drabber.
That one dark thought he can never complete
Of something – anything – somehow to eat.
Be careful where you swim, my sweet.
Listen to this 1963 recording of John Ciardi discussing his work and reading poetry at MIT.
Buy a shark tie, or pair of shark socks. Or both.
Watch Jaws. Again.