Tsk tsk, Discovery Channel.
With the recent airing of its Megalodon “documentary,” one of our few remaining “educational” (SCARE QUOTES!) television stations has temporarily, if not indefinitely, blown its credibility. The public outcry against such a deception should ensure that the higher-ups at DC will think twice before once again producing programming which presents false information as scientific fact, while providing only the tiniest of disclaimers to the contrary in its closing credit scroll. Viewers were tricked. Ratings were high. Is this a Bad Thing?
Before I jump into my reasoning for why it’s not, here’s a little more background for those who either don’t have cable, don’t like sharks, or don’t enjoy controversy. Every year around this part of the summer, the Discovery Channel (home to Mythbusters, Dirty Jobs, and…Amish Mafia?) devotes an entire week of scheduled programming to the glory that is the shark. Don’t ask me why, but this has become one of the most beloved traditions of cable television viewers over the past few years. Shark Week consists of a mishmash of documentaries, true life encounters, and other reality-type shows that revolve around (figuratively) dissecting this member of the elasmobranch subclass. These programs are generally touted as informational or educational or AT LEAST nonfictional; like the History Channel or Science Channel, Discovery has generally maintained an air of academic legitimacy in comparison to most other cable television wastelands (but Amish Mafia??). However, a recent and accelerating trend appears to be that these once revered outposts of EDUTAINMENT have been nosediving toward a bullseye with Honey Boo Boo’s face painted in the center. And it’s this decline in informational integrity that is at the core of this latest fish story. During Shark Week 2013, DC aired a documentary detailing the continued existence of the Megalodon, a 60-foot long prehistoric beast with 7-inch long teeth that mysteriously went extinct long ago. This documentary presented evidence from experts (read: not scientists) who built a case around the idea that Megalodon survives to this day, but it turns out that REAL experts (read: scientists) have come out since the airing of this show and refuted pretty much all claims that DC’s talking heads made; that is, there is no real scientific evidence that Megalodon swims with the fishes (or DOESN’T swim with the fishes? Maybe this is the wrong phrase to use here).
So, you can see where the outrage has come from: you’d be angry too after being punk’d by a cable channel. What’s worse perhaps is that polls were taken after the airing of “Megalodon” and a large majority of its viewers now believe that it may still exist.
When I first heard about this hubbub, I was torn as to how I felt about it. Given, I did not see it upon its initial airing, so maybe my opinion is disqualified. However, the more I think about, the more I like the way things turned out. I like it because once the news came out that the documentary was bunk, it reminded people (or SHOULD have reminded people) that the number one goal of television is not to educate. Sure, TV shows can be educational, and oftentimes channels like Discovery or History or Science do produce such programming. However, this aspect of television is a by-product of television’s real aim: to entertain. TV executives need you to be entertained enough by their programming that you don’t think to change the channel and thus continue to boost their ratings. Entertaining the viewer is a means to an end, and we all are aware of this. This goes for all television stations, whether they claim to be educational or not.
This is the reason I like the way things turned out with DC’s shark debacle. It reminds us what television is, and what it is not. What it is: a method of passively absorbing information that requires no real work on the part of the viewer, and as such it is one of the simplest ways to, as a viewer/consumer, obtain information (factual or not). What it is not: a reliable source of facts, scientific or otherwise, and in fact, it is a medium that actually favors the bending of facts towards the fantastical in order to entice interest and continued viewing. If you break it down, television provides ease, but not accuracy. It seems that the more dry or boring the reference material is, the more likely it is reliable as fact; while this is by no means always true, it seems to be a decent enough measuring stick by which to judge a piece of information’s authenticity. If you have to work for the knowledge you seek, not only are you more likely to be rewarded with truth, but you’ll also feel a greater sense of fulfillment in your work paying off. Holy crow, is this a self-help blog now?
Keep in mind, too, that even the most academically researched documentaries usually have an agenda. If you can decipher that agenda during viewing, it may help you to parse what’s scientifically true or un. Just because television shows are developed as a passive medium doesn’t mean that you can’t actively engage with them.
Unfortunately, assuming a Pandora’s box point-of-view, DC may be headed further away from infotainment and more towards sensationalist pseudoscience. In other words, watch carefully. The next documentary you see may star Tara Reid and Ian Ziering.