Years before the term “fake news” made its way into the lexicon, Discovery Channel got into hot water with a fake documentary.
For those who don’t recall the uproar, during Shark Week in 2013, the network aired “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives,” about the possible return of a prehistoric creature that went extinct millions of years ago. However, despite a brief disclaimer that it was fiction, many people thought the documentary was real. Megalodons did exist once, but there’s no evidence they’ve reappeared. Scientists were furious at the network, which is presumed to be educational, for confusing viewers.
“It was presented in such a way that you could very easily watch it and not know it was fictional,” one shark expert told NPR.
Yet it was a ratings hit, the most popular program in Shark Week history with nearly 5 million viewers. The next year, the network aired “Megalodon: The New Evidence,” of which it apparently had none. Finally, in 2015, executives promised Shark Week would be “more science and research focused,” according to Quartz.
But like any savvy TV network, Discovery knows the best way to gin up more viewers isn’t to run away from controversy. So Friday night, during the 30th anniversary of Shark Week, the channel will debut the new “Megalodon: Fact vs. Fiction.” In the third look at this killer shark, experts will fact-check and analyze the original fictional special from 2013. In an era where reality is frequently questioned, the network is being especially careful.
“I mean, we’re super cognizant of what happened. The last thing we want to do is cause ill will toward sharks, towards the brand, or anything like that,” said Joseph Schneier, Discovery’s vice president of development and production. “Yet at the same time, we have a program we were proud of. So we wanted to own the fact that there was some controversy, and that it was clearly a scripted program with actors in it . . . but then dive into the science of the show and the real fish.”
At the beginning of this special, a narrator explains the dust-up. Unflattering headlines from news articles at the time (“Discovery kicks off Shark Week with dishonest documentary”) and angry tweets fly across the screen. The special keeps a tongue-in-cheek tone; at one point, shark conservationist Julie Andersen acknowledges the scenes of Shark Alley, a real-life area off the South African coast, was pretty accurate in the fake film.
“But let me repeat myself: There are no megalodons!” she adds.
“We get it, smarty-pants. No megalodons roam the modern seas,” the voice-over narrator shoots back. “But when they did, the oceans were like a Darwinian Thunderdome, survived only by the fittest and biggest.”
The special is filled with similar fun facts — after all, the main goal of Shark Week is to get viewers excited about sharks and the ocean and to care about conservation efforts. And producers will definitely capitalize on the megalodon incident to help make that happen.
“We go to great pains at the top of this megalodon special to really own the fact that it’s a fish that was extinct; it led to some confusion; people were mad. It was very important for us to do in that first couple minutes,” Schneier said. “But it also sparked a lot of interest in what could have been the biggest shark that ever lived. And let’s use that controversy to talk about how cool the megalodons were.”
In fact, there’s enough curiosity about the megalodon that Warner Bros. is banking on it to draw fans this summer. “The Meg,” starring Jason Statham, features humans battling the prehistoric beast. (A trailer for the movie, which lands in theaters Aug. 10, will air during the special.) The interest in the feature film proves that the 2013 documentary, if nothing else, helped raised awareness about a fascinating creature — and could lead people to learn more about science.
“If we get anyone interested in the science of the prehistoric fish, the hope is that we lead them to investigating more about their own natural world, and in turn, learn more about why we need to preserve the natural world,” Schneier said.
“Megalodon: Fact vs. Fiction” (one hour) airs Friday, July 27 at 8 p.m. on Discovery.