From Modern Mythology:
There is an 85 foot shark lurking in the depths off the Cape, and it’s Photoshopped as hell.
For many of those that caught the Sharknado meets Blair Witch atrocity of Megalodon, Wil Wheaton’s comments probably feel familiar – this very discussion occurred in the room as we watched with mild amusement and growing disgust – as it raises a larger question of where the burden of responsibility lies for stations such as Discovery or the History Channel, which has aired any number of dubious “documentaries.” (Whatever it was, It Was Aliens.)
Why bother getting upset about yet another stupid “found footage” fake documentary passed off as real? Isn’t that pretty much par for the course on cable these days?
And then I realized why I was (and am) so angry: I care about education. I care about science. I care about inspiring people to learn about the world and universe around us. Sharks are fascinating, and megalodon was an absolutely incredible creature! Discovery had a chance to get its audience thinking about what the oceans were like when megalodon roamed and hunted in them. It had a chance to even show what could possibly happen if there were something that large and predatory in the ocean today … but Discovery Channel did not do that. In a cynical ploy for ratings, the network deliberately lied to its audience and presented fiction as fact. Discovery Channel betrayed its audience.
An entire generation has grown up watching Discovery Channel, learning about science and biology and physics, and that generation trusts Discovery Channel. We tune into Discovery Channel programming with the reasonable expectation that whatever we’re going to watch will be informative and truthful. We can trust Discovery Channel to educate us and our children about the world around us! That’s why we watch it in the first place!
Last night, Discovery Channel betrayed that trust during its biggest viewing week of the year. Discovery Channel isn’t run by stupid people, and this was not some kind of mistake. Someone made a deliberate choice to present a work of fiction that is more suited for the SyFy channel as a truthful and factual documentary. That is disgusting, and whoever made that decision should be ashamed.
But I wouldn’t hold my breath for that apology. Nor would it likely matter. The lines continue to blur between reality TV, documentary, and science or journalistic programming, and the most obvious reason is the almighty bottom line.
After all, empty speculation can be made more interesting through dramatization, and certainly leads to higher ratings amongst US audiences than rigorous skepticism. This seems to point toward yet another way that the gamification of reality in the form of $ produces diminished returns in most every other appreciable way.
And what of the “authorities”? Do you think that these channels should be held to some kind of higher standard? One thing is for sure: if an audience doesn’t demand a higher standard, it is unlikely that it’ll arise on its own.
When an audience was schooled in fill-in-the-blank, rote and regurgitate form, programming takes the role of teacher. Not to harp on the tropes of bad Sci Fi like The Faculty, but it should come as no surprise that many fell for the little trap Discovery set. The only truth in the show was that in a literal sea of uncertainty, anything is possible. That does not, however, mean that anything is probable.
This could raise still deeper questions about the nature of fiction, fact and myth, as we have explored in so much depth here already. It may not be a murky line in the case of Megalodon, but within the larger context, the line is murky indeed. Those that have learned to distrust authority tend to distrust everything they’re told, while those that employ a staid, idiomatic “coloring within the lines” mentality can’t seem to muster the wherewithal to think critically about anything that comes from a supposed authority. These lines are established before the fact.