When Wildlife Documentaries Jump The Shark
This summer's Shark Week on the Discovery Channel was the highest-rated in the special's 27-year history. But that success has also brought complaints.
The network has been criticized for pushing entertainment at the cost of science, with "documentaries" that advance dubious theories — or are entirely fake. Discovery Channel has aired specials about everything from mythical monster sharks in Louisiana's rivers to long-extinct Megalodons supposedly still swimming the seas.
Animal Planet — which is owned by Discovery Communications — has even run fake documentaries on mermaids.
A Caveat Buried In The Credits
The line between authentic documentaries and so-called "docufiction" can be blurry. Even some legitimate filmmakers have committed video fakery for the sake of a project. Chris Palmer is among them: He's a seasoned wildlife documentarian who now teaches the craft at American University in Washington, D.C.
He tells NPR's Arun Rath that it's surprisingly easy to slip into misleading portrayals. One of his own misdeeds occurred during the filming of the IMAX documentary Wolves.
"While the audience thought they were watching wild, free-roaming wolves, in fact we rented them," Palmer says. "We rented them from a game farm. It was on the end credits, but who — except for the director's mother — ever reads the end credits? So it was kind of surreptitious and clandestine."
He says they decided to rent wolves because they wanted to show the animals' complex social life. That's harder to do with wild wolves, which are skittish and might run away when they hear a camera.
"If you don't use a captive pack, then you have to habituate wild wolves, which is not a good thing," he says. "I think the mistake we made was not to be honest. It wasn't so much that using the captive pack, as not telling the audience we were using the captive pack."
Palmer didn't feel like he was deceiving anyone until he started to show the film around the country. After a screening, an audience member asked how he got a shot of one of the mother wolves in a den.
"We made that den — it's an artificial den for that wolf. And I could tell when I told them, I could feel the disappointment in the air," he says. "And that was one of the things that came to haunt me."
He came to realize that filmmakers — as well as the broadcasters that commission and air their work — have to be more conscious about how viewers will react to their films.
"If they knew the facts and would feel betrayed, then we need to stop and think about what we're doing," he says.
For example, one common deceptive technique is editing a shot so the prey and predator appear closer together. Palmer says some directors also "crowd or harass animals" to get the shot they want.
"I think the key question is, when does legitimate filmmaking artifice become unacceptable deception?" he says.
Don't Trust Those 'Voodoo Shark' Remarks
Sometimes, even scientists are unwittingly pulled into that "filmmaking artifice" and deception.
Jonathan Davis, a shark biologist, was researching bull sharks at the University of New Orleans when a film crew reached out to him for a Shark Week program they were filming.
"The initial contact suggested they wanted to do a documentary on sharks of Louisiana," Davis says. "They said they wanted to focus on my research."
What he didn't know at the time was that it was for a documentary called Voodoo Sharks, about the possible existence of a huge mythical shark called the "Rookin."
Davis says the interview lasted three hours and the filmmakers talked about science and his research for the majority of that time.
"But then as an after-thought, the last two minutes or so, the guy kind of just asked nonchalantly ... 'Hey, well what do you think about this Rookin voodoo shark that's down in south Louisiana that the fisherman talk about?' and I said, 'Of course, that's BS and I've never heard of it. And even if I had heard of it, it would be completely false,' " he says.
In an excerpt from the documentary, Davis' comment is edited to sound like he thinks the "Voodoo shark" might be real. In a clip, he says: "Sharks are pretty amazing creatures. All of them have been found in weird places. So I'm not a hundred percent certain that it would happen, but it could happen."
He says the whole experience left a bad taste in his mouth.
"It doesn't change the fact that I was out there catching bull sharks, tagging them, taking blood, doing real science. So if they wanted to show real sharks, that's what they had to show," he says.
Gurney Productions — which made the documentary — and the Discovery Channel both declined to comment on Davis's account.
Mermaids And Megalodons
Some networks have also been experimenting with completely staged "documentaries" on fake subjects. They have disclaimers explaining that they're fictional, but like that note in Palmer's credits, they're easy to miss — especially for viewers who tune in midway.
Animal Planet has made two such films about mermaids. And last year the Discovery Channel aired Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, which suggested a long-extinct giant shark might still be menacing the ocean.
Palmer says that while the Discovery Channel has done a lot of good, the fake documentaries are not responsible.
"This is a time when science literacy is plummeting in this country. People are gullible. And so they watch this show coming from this highly esteemed broadcaster, Discovery, and they're led to believe now there's a monster in the ocean," he says. "This is nonsense. There's no evidence for it at all — they went extinct two million years ago."
The problem, Palmer says, is that the films distract from real problems in the oceans, like shark finning and pollution.
But then again, real life — and real problems — may not be what audiences want to watch. Megalodon did so well that it spawned a sequel in this summer's shark week.
And one of the fake mermaid documentaries was the highest-rated show in Animal Planet's history.
Editor's note at 4:15 p.m. on Sept. 4: We've removed a photo from this page. It showed TV's Mike Rowe during one of the Shark Week programs he hosted in 2006. Rowe has pointed out on his Facebook page that he last hosted a Shark Week show in 2008. The photo shouldn't have been included in a report about what critics have said regarding more recent Shark Week presentations.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
This summer's Shark Week on the Discovery Channel was the highest rated in the special's 27 year history. But a lot of former fans are saying that Shark Week has jumped the shark, that they're pushing entertainment at the cost of science from documentaries that advance dubious theories about monster sharks in Louisiana Rivers to all out fake documentaries about sharks as big as submarines. I asked Chris Palmer about this. He's a seasoned wildlife documentarian who teaches the craft now at American University. He says it's surprisingly easy to slip into misleading portrayals. His favorite example is one of his own misdeeds. It happened in an IMAX documentary called "Wolves."
CHRIS PALMER: While the audience thought they were watching wild, free-roaming wolves, in fact we rented them. We rented them from a game farm. And it was on the end credits. But who except for the director's mother ever reads the end credits? So it was kind of surreptitious and clandestine.
RATH: Why did you go to the rental wolves? What did you need from them you weren't getting from your actual wolves?
PALMER: We wanted to show a film showing their social life, which is very complex. They're wonderful animals - complicated animals. But it's very hard to do that with wild wolves because you can't get close to them. They run away when they hear the cameras. And so one way to get that close up views of the social interaction in a wolf pack is with a captive pack. If you don't use a captive pack, then you have to habituate wild wolves, which is not a good thing. I think the mistake we made was not to be honest. It wasn't so much the using the captive pack as not telling the audience we were using the captive pack.
RATH: Ultimately, how were you found out about that?
PALMER: What happened was I went around the country talking - showing this film and talking about it and drumming up support for wolf conservation. And someone put their hand up and asks me, oh, how did you get that shot of the mother wolf in the den? That was amazing. And of course we made that den. It's an artificial den for that wolf. And I could tell when I told them, I could feel the disappointment in the air. And that was one of these things that came to haunt me. And I came to realize that filmmakers, like myself and broadcasters, had to be much more conscious of the reaction from viewers and what they feel like. And if they knew the facts and would feel betrayed, then we need to stop and think about what we're doing.
RATH: Do you know of any other examples of this sort of thing like your wolf rental, that happens in wildlife documentaries?
PALMER: Yes. People use computer graphics so that they can put the prey and predator closer together. And then in order to get the shots we want, we will often crowd or harass animals that, you know, the animal's surrounded by 15 cars and we're all trying to get shots of it. So a lot of this - a lot of faking. I think the key question, Arun, is when does legitimate filmmaking artifice become unacceptable deception?
RATH: Sometimes even scientists are unwittingly pulled into that filmmaking artifice and deception. Jonathan Davis is a shark biologist. He was researching bull sharks at the University of New Orleans when a film crew reached out to him saying they were working on a documentary for Shark Week.
JONATHAN DAVIS: The initial contact suggested they wanted to do a documentary on sharks of Louisiana. They said they wanted to focus on my research.
RATH: What he didn't know at the time was the documentary was called "Voodoo Sharks" and it would be about the possible existence of a huge, mythical shark called the Rookin.
DAVIS: We had a pretty much a three hour interview. For the first two hours and 57 minutes or so, they talked, you know, about science, about my research, about sharks, about this and that. But then as an afterthought, the last two minutes or so, the guy kind of just asked nonchalantly - like, we'd finished the interview, done with the formal portion and this was, like, an afterthought informal portion. Like, hey, well, what do you think about this Rookin voodoo shark that's down in South Louisiana that the fishermen talk about? And I said, of course that's BS and I've never heard of it. And even if I had heard of it, it would be completely false.
RATH: Let's hear how they set you up for it in the film in that way. Here's a clip from their documentary.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "VOODOO SHARK")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They believe that if there is a monster shark entering Lake Pontchartrain, it would likely be sticking to this area where the salty waters of the Gulf meet the fresh waters just outside of New Orleans.
DAVIS: Sharks are pretty amazing creatures. All of them have been found in weird places. So I'm not 100 percent certain that it would happen, but it could happen.
RATH: What was your reaction when you saw that?
DAVIS: Obviously it set it off on a bad taste in my mouth, for sure. Because that was definitely the answer I used to the question, not that question, but the question after that. So they had asked me that first question I just explained about the Rookin. And I said no, that's BS. And then they asked me another question saying, well, what do you think about large bull sharks - like a big mature bull shark being in the lake? And that's the answer to that question.
RATH: You're actually - you come off about as well as I think you could in something like this. They show you actually doing real science there, you know, tagging the sharks, figuring out how, you know, they use the lake possibly as a nursery.
DAVIS: Well, I didn't really get much negative out of it besides the fact that it was ridiculous and they didn't focus on my positive. But you can't take me out of my element. And regardless of the fact that they twisted one sentence of a three-hour interview around to make it seem like I believed in something, it doesn't change the fact that I was out there catching bull sharks, tagging them, taking blood, doing real science. And so if they wanted to show sharks, that's what they had to show.
RATH: Gurney Productions, which made the documentary, and the Discovery Channel both declined to comment on Jonathan Davis' account. Now, if you're a fan of cable documentaries, you might be familiar with the new format which is all deception - documentaries that are completely staged with actors playing the roles of scientists and journalists. They have disclaimers but they're pretty easy to miss, especially if you tune in midway. Animal Planet had two documentaries about mermaids. And last year, the Discovery Channel aired "Megalodon," which suggested a 50-foot-long prehistoric shark is still patrolling the ocean. Again, here's documentary maker Chris Palmer.
PALMER: I mean, Shark Week and Discovery have done a lot of good. Let's just say that to begin with. But this is a time when science literacy is plummeting in this country. People are gullible and so they watch this show coming from this highly esteemed broadcaster, Discovery. And they're lead to believe now there's a monster in the ocean. This is nonsense. There's no evidence for it at all. They went extinct 2 million years ago.
RATH: The problem, Chris Palmer says, is that these films are a distraction from real problems in the ocean, like shark finning and pollution. But it doesn't look like the "Mermaids," "Megalodons" and "Voodoo Sharks" are going away anytime soon. Megalodon did so well it spawned a sequel in this summer's Shark Week. And the latest mermaid documentary was the highest-rated show in the history of the Animal Planet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.