Saturday, August 16, 2014

An Open Letter to David Zaslav, President and CEO of Discovery Communications

Dear Mr. Zaslav,

I’m writing to you concerning the programming on Discovery, one of several cable channels owned by Discovery Communications. Specifically, I wish to address my concerns about this year’s “Shark Week” programming.

I have been a long time viewer of Discovery’s annual Shark Week event. In fact, I started watching Shark Week in its very first run in the summer of 1987 and I’ve been a faithful viewer ever since. Over those twenty-seven years, I’ve watched Shark Week’s programming and marketing strategies evolve.

In the past two years, Shark Week’s programming has taken a very troubling turn. Problems began with the 2013 broadcast of Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. This program purported to expose the existence of Carcharocles megalodon, a giant prehistoric shark that went extinct millions of years ago. It is now well known that this program, purporting to be nonfiction, was entirely fabricated. That same summer, Shark Week also featured the program Voodoo Sharks which explored the existence of the so-called Rookin shark in the bayous of Louisiana. Although the Rookin is a fantasy, the program did include an actual scientist, Jonathan Davis of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who now claims that the filmmakers lied to him and manipulated his testimony.

Instead of admitting to their deceit, Discovery has doubled down and continued to air dishonest Shark Week programming in 2014. The week was kicked off by Shark of Darkness, an entirely fabricated show about an enormous great white shark that attacked shipwrecked whale watchers. This was followed by Monster Hammerhead. Like Voodoo Shark, this program spun nonsense of a mythical shark and featured actual scientists who were bamboozled by the filmmakers. Shark Week wrapped up its weekday programing with an extended rerun of 2013’s Megalodon episode followed by Megalodon: The New Evidence, which took on the appearance of a news program while presenting “evidence” so absurd that the show treaded on parody.

Aside from fabricating events and deceiving some of the people involved, these programs were also filled with bad science. Shark of Darkness featured several erroneous claims about shark biology and behavior, like maintaining that a great white shark could “learn” to buccal pump their gills (this is like claiming that you or I could learn to grow wings) and insinuating that sharks actively seek out people to eat. Monster Hammerhead claimed that a great hammerhead shark has been haunting Florida waters for sixty years but these sharks have an average lifespan of twenty to thirty years. These errors are unbecoming of a cable network that bills itself as “The World’s #1 Nonfiction Media Company.”

To be sure, authentic programs were broadcast among these fictional shows but that only compounds the problem. Without any clear disclaimers to demarcate what is and is not fiction (and the vague postscripts featured on these shows don’t cut it) it is nearly impossible for viewers to tell what is true and what is fabricated.

This should be of concern for Discovery. According to your company’s website, “Discovery is committed to managing its business activities in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations and to ensuring honest and ethical behavior by its directors, officers, employees and contingent workers.” It is impossible to reconcile the content of these shows—especially the alleged behavior of the filmmakers—and a commitment to honest and ethical behavior.

Please do not think me or this letter naïve. I understand that Discovery is attempting to keep up with the competition. The History Channel (owned by A&E) has long since abandoned its namesake with so-called reality shows that have nothing to do with history and it regularly features programs on religion and extraterrestrial encounters that are disingenuous at best. I also understand that Discovery has an obligation to create revenues for its shareholders and Megalodon and Shark of Darkness achieved tremendous ratings.

However, it is not necessary to abandon journalistic and scientific standards and basic filmmaking ethics in order to achieve the ratings you desire. As Joseph Stromberg of Vox pointed out, Discovery’s 2010 broadcast of the BBC program Life achieved 11.8 million viewers, more than twice Megalodon’s 4.8 million viewers. Also, the recent broadcast of the science-based program Cosmos gained impressive ratings that eclipsed both Megalodon and Shark of Darkness with 8.5 million viewers across ten networks with Fox getting 5.8 million of them. Clearly, there is an audience for authentic and well-made science programming.

The decline of Shark Week should be worrying to Discovery Networks for another reason. Shark Week has become one of the most popular television events of the year not through disingenuous programming but based on the raw interest in sharks that exists among your viewers. Programs like Megalodon and Shark of Darkness alienate these viewers. This isn’t a projection. It’s already happening. Shark of Darkness attracted 3.8 million viewers, one million less than Megalodon did a year earlier. This evidence, as well as the overwhelming negative response in the press and in social media, should be alarming to you, the rest of the leadership at Discovery, and to your investors. If you continue in this manner of producing sloppy and dishonest programming, Discovery may lose the very viewers who have made Shark Week and this network a success in the first place.

I assume that Shark Week will return in 2015. Between now and then, please consider the impact that your programming choices have on shark studies, on viewers, and on your network. While Discovery has gained tremendous ratings in the short term, the negative impact on your brand in the long term may cause you to regret these choices. It is within your power to fix this and I hope you will do so. Otherwise, I may choose to pass on future Shark Week broadcasts and I suspect other viewers will do the same.