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Rough Waters Ahead for Shark Week 2015?

Posted: July 2, 12:23 p.m.
by Mary Claire Hunter.

If you’re like me and watch more TV than you are willing to admit, chances are you’ve heard the 2015 Shark Week commercial. For more than 25 years, Shark Week has been Discovery Channel’s most well-known and effective campaign, drawing in millions of viewers each year. I’d say the majority of those viewers are not shark experts, but loyal followers of the longest running program in all of television. Despite my fear of sharks, I would consider myself one of these loyal followers.

In the public relations field, practitioners are most focused on how each campaign impacts the audience. I began thinking . . . does watching Shark Week feed my unreasonable fear of all things in the ocean? Shark scientist David Shiffman seems to think so. Pacific Standard Magazine quotes Shiffman explaining that Shark Week has turned the conversation surrounding sharks into a negative one. “Twenty-four percent of all sharks, skates and rays are listed as ‘threatened with extinction,’” says Shiffman. “It’s a lot harder to get people to care about saving something if they’re irrationally afraid of it and think that it should be extinct. And Shark Week has played no small role in this fearmongering.”

Go ahead and group me into that irrational category. The last thing I take away from Shark Week is the idea of conservation, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. At the end of the week I’m actually reminded of the reasons I don’t go further than knee deep in the ocean.

Widespread criticism is not unusual for big campaigns or big organizations like Discovery Channel. It’s almost expected with any campaign or program that involves animals. (Cue Sarah McLaughlin’s “Angel,” followed by an immediate lunge for the remote control.) When Shark Week kicked off last year with the special, “Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives,” thousands of critics emerged via social media. Outraged viewers claimed they were led to believe that this prehistoric shark could still be alive and well — even though the Megalodon has been extinct for millions of years.

Courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim via Flikr

It’s clear that the audience values transparency over fiction. In response, Discovery Channel’s new president, Rich Ross, vowed back in January to stop airing all fictional programs, not just during Shark Week.

So the question is, after the controversy surrounding last year’s Shark Week, what will Discovery Channel do differently this year? Sounds like an easy fix to appease loyal viewers, right? Don’t show fictional programs like “Megalodon.” What bloodies the seawater is that “Megalodon” boasts the highest ratings and most viewers for any program in the history of Shark Week.

I’m curious to see if ratings for 2015 will suffer based on last year’s negative feedback. Discovery Channel took a step in the right direction by refocusing the upcoming week on the education and conservation of this species, rather than ratings. In the long run, this move will do more good for the future of the channel, its programs and its ratings.

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