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How Our Love Affair With Reality Television Created Megalodon

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What are you watching? | Photo by Sarah Reid, CC.

It’s Shark Week. People everywhere are presumably dipping their toes into the water with some trepidation because, as numerous televisions programs have taught the viewing public, sharks actually hang out pretty close to shore, especially if the opportunity to feed presents itself. But now there’s even more of a reason to worry: the Discovery Channel’s Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives suggested that a 60-foot predator is roaming the depths of the ocean, ready to attack a fishing vessel at any given moment.

Get out of the water!

While there is evidence to support that Megalodon did exist, it went extinct 1.5 million years ago—which is one fact Discovery failed to make abundantly clear to the American public. Instead, they called up images of living fossils and Lazarus species. At the end of the program, they included a disclaimer that read: “Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is a still a debate about what they might be.” (Cue the theme from Jaws.)

People took notice. Unless you’re living a life without media, you undoubtedly know there’s been great public and scientific backlash directed both at the show itself and Discovery, which names itself as a leading producer of non-fiction content. I won’t rehash too much of that here—it’s already fairly well documented and readily accessible. (If you’re interested, you can visit Wil Wheaton, Christie WilcoxTime, or The Lead at CNN to start, and a quick Google search or perusal of Twitter will undoubtedly turn up more.) The essence of the controversy is that the Discovery Channel presented the content as real but the program was a mockumentary. Discovery hired actors to play scientists, fabricated events, and invested a decent CGI budget to bring it all together. People were duped and nothing makes people more angry than being fooled. Social media means they don’t have to fume in silence: they can broadcast their ire publicly—which allows the media to pick up on public sentiment and amplify the public response.

Let’s be realistic: we want to believe.

We’re angry that Shark Week didn’t meet our expectations. But really, what did we expect?

Let’s look at the line-up on the Discovery Channel away from Shark Week: The channel that brought us MythBusters and Planet Earth is also home to Gold Rush, Saint Hoods, Amish Mafia, Deadliest Catch, and Moonshiners. Discovery Communications is the parent company to Animal Planet and TLC, which are both theoretically educational channels. The line-up on Animal Planet includes Frontierman Takes Manhattan, My Cat From Hell, Finding Bigfoot, Whale Wars, River Monsters, and Tanked. Over at TLC, you can spend the evening watching Hoarding: Buried Alive, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Long Island Medium, or Extreme Cougar Wives.

I am going to make an assumption about you, Reader. And you may not like it. I believe that you watch or have watched some form of reality television. Why? Because Discovery isn’t alone: Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Teen Mom, Jersey Shore, Project Runway, Top Chef, and American Idol—beginning with Candid Camera, our appetite for reality television has been steadily growing as a nation. These shows turn the idea of 15-minutes-fame into a reality for everyone. And what’s more fascinating than watching the drama of real life, where there are no guaranteed scripted happy endings? These shows let us team up with with fishermen, loggers, and truckers who are trying to make a living, teens who are faced with raising a baby, people who are struggling to get in shape or realize a musical career, or socialites. These aren’t necessarily our realities but we watch them with a sense of “That could be me if only” or “I would …” or “What if?” to some degree. We find ways to empathize with the struggles of these seeming everyday people. We believe that they’re just like us and use them as a measure for how we might behave or how others might judge us if we were similarly situated.

We want to believe that these shows are real even if to a certain degree, we know they aren’t. But we avoid considering that they’re productions, which means they have production budgets and production staff. For example, when Dave Hester of Storage Wars sued A&E for firing him, he suggested that some of the storage finds were planted to add to the appeal of the process, and some bidders were funded so they would win. We don’t want to believe that these types of dramas can be created because it distances us from the characters and reduces those ‘that could be me” feelings.

Once doubt about authenticity has been cast about a show, it seems to trail off. We’re always looking for—and producers are trying to provide—something that is more real, more authentic. This opens the door for shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Hoarders, and My Crazy Obsession because they allegedly capture what we believe to truly be everyday life for some people, even as they might reinforce certain stereotypes. In fact, those stereotypes may actually contribute to that sense of authenticity because they in turn reinforce our perceptions of what we consider to be real.

What does this have to do with Megalodon?

Reality television pervades all areas of programming. We’ve been conditioned to think that most things we see on television are “real.” So when it comes to a channel that uses reality to share purported educational content, we want to think that we’re getting what we were promised. But perhaps all this reality has increased our credulity and diminished our capacity to process fiction when we encounter it in a public space. Reality shows are notoriously low-cost endeavors: they require a small crew, few paid performers, and few sets. If we’re willing to believe that these low-budget shows are real, then why not a more artfully crafted program with the presumed weight of science behind it?

Seventy percent of people on report that they believe in Megalodon. What about you? Results captured on 8/9/2013.

The thing is, if we want fantasy, we’ll go to the movies—though we may complain about the color of a character’s skin or the ways in which it deviates from the book because even here there is some idea of reality to adhere to. Despite the popularity of the “found footage” genre, in this space, we generally know we’re being presented with fiction. Megalodon happened in a public, shared space, as did Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, which caused a general panic in 1938 and shattered the blind trust we had in radio broadcasts. If people are upset over Megalodon, they were flat out furious over War of the Worlds. They had fled their homes, hid in churches, made gas masks. When it was revealed to be an attempt at entertainment, some people sued.

The issue with what Discovery has done is not that it will cause us to question what we see on television, but that ail will cause us to question science. As a self-appointed platform for disseminating science, Discovery has the capacity to reach millions at a time when science is still struggling with how to be publicly accessible. However, it bears remembering that Discovery is a for-profit media company. They have a bottom line to manage which is accomplished most readily throughout ratings. And, really, their line-up beyond Shark Week shows us they are really here to entertain. To their credit, Megalodon was actually a masterpiece of a mockumentary. It wove together the fantastic through the lens of reality rather seamlessly. They teased and hinted. And nothing garners ratings like uncertainty.

Perhaps its success is also indicative that we’re also a little tired of realty. Perhaps because we’ve “seen it all” we’re ready to believe the incredible—which is why there can be shows about searching for Bigfoot or uncovering the truth about the Loch Ness monster or finding proof of hauntings. Discovery seems to give a nod to this with their open-ended disclaimer. (FYI: Great White sharks can grow to immense size. Just saying.) Maybe we’re a little starved for that fiction. How else can we explain why the Animal Planet features on mermaids grossed record ratings for the channel?

I can promise that the likelihood of encountering Megalodon on your next beach trip is small—but you might want to think about what’s lurking on your television and how that’s shaping how you define reality.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 1:25 pm 08/9/2013

    Discovery Channel demonstrated itself to be a promoter of fake science and willing to do that under the guise of a factual documentary when it aired not one but two shows about the existence of mermaids.

    When I saw the Megalodon show I was deeply disappointed but not upset. Discovery just showed that it was willing to present another show pretending to be a factual documentary of real events as its opening for its very popular and long running Shark Week. Now Shark Week can be added to the crap carnival of programs that masquerade as reality.

    Since I always question science and I absolutely question what I see on TV I was not fooled. Questioning science gives me information like Megalodon is believed by many paleontologists to have actually gone extinct 3 to 4 million years ago, not 1.5 million. Only a fool does not seek more information before forming an opinion about what is real.

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  2. 2. sjfone 9:24 am 08/10/2013

    Television as mindless drivel- I’m shocked.

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  3. 3. rkipling 11:55 am 08/11/2013

    Yes, Krystal, there is a bell curve.

    I don’t remember if I have commented on one of your posts before, but I have followed your blog. I look for well written articles with a different perspective. Thanks for sharing with us.

    I take no offense at your assumption that your readers are watching or have ever watched reality television. If you watch any TV at all, you know that Shark Week exists, but I don’t watch it. Didn’t know about the Megalodon episode or the backlash about it until now. No, I don’t live in a cave without internet access, and yes I do watch TV on occasion. And, although I am aware that things in the ocean bite, I knew Megalodon hasn’t been one of them for a very long time (I couldn’t have told you exactly how long without looking it up.)

    I have eschewed reality TV because I had no expectation of gaining anything meaningful there. Since you have surveyed what’s on, are there any you believe have value? Not everything has to be informative to have some value. I learned the meaning of the word “eschew” from an episode of the sitcom Home Improvement.

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  4. 4. Latest Television News | Jaecean Product Reviews 2:00 pm 08/11/2013

    [...] actually hang out pretty close to shore, especially if the opportunity to feed … Read more on Scientific American Posted in: Television   Tags: Latest, News, [...]

    Link to this
  5. 5. rkipling 2:46 pm 08/11/2013

    Yeah, I didn’t think there was, but I asked just in case.

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  6. 6. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 10:34 pm 08/11/2013

    Hi rkipling -

    Thanks for chiming in. I don’t think ALL television is bad–I was a huge fan of Home Improvement myself. And I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I spent a fair share of television viewing hours on Saved By the Bell(!) and Friends(!). I think sitcoms overall can be rather telling into our overall social psyche and can certainly help define the ethos of a generation. They can help us express ourselves. But I too avoid reality television when I can help it–and even then will admit that Deadliest Catch and Dirtiest Jobs are good for a low-key Friday night when necessary.

    That said, I think that these types of shows do shape our perception, and ask us to restrict our imagination, which can be detrimental. I’ve watched Megaladon a few times now and each time it’s clearer that it’s not quite as real as it was taken to be. But I think since the topic related to something that frightens us, we were more likely to listen (as in War of the Worlds and unlike Mermaids, which we knew had to have a decent degree of fantasy attached to it).

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  7. 7. be234so 3:27 pm 08/12/2013

    Isn’t the Learning (?) Channel in this group of channels also. You know, the channel where you learn about nothing but meaningless crap that no one should be paying any attention to (“Sixteen and pregnant”…who cares?). And then there’s the History Channel, where one can learn about “Ancient Aliens,” a show with the weirdest, crazy-assed, conspiratory-loving goofballs that has absolutely nothing to do with history. Even the Science Channel has an abundance of crap on it having nothing to do with science. All of these channels owe the public an apology!

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  8. 8. Tiny screens are growing in importance for television viewers | Rory's Product Reviews 4:07 pm 08/12/2013

    [...] How Our Love Affair With Reality Television Created Megalodon People everywhere are presumably dipping their toes into the water with some trepidation because, as numerous televisions programs have taught the viewing public, sharks actually hang out pretty close to shore, especially if the opportunity to feed … Read more on Scientific American [...]

    Link to this
  9. 9. Latest Television News | Rory's Product Reviews 4:14 pm 08/12/2013

    [...] actually hang out pretty close to shore, especially if the opportunity to feed … Read more on Scientific American Posted in: Television   Tags: Latest, News, [...]

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  10. 10. Critic's corner: What's on TV Monday night | Sassy 79 9:16 am 08/13/2013

    [...] actually hang out pretty close to shore, especially if the opportunity to feed … Read more on Scientific American (blog) Posted in: Television   Tags: corner, Critic&#39s, Monday, night, [...]

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  11. 11. Johnny O 10:08 am 08/13/2013

    Wow – you just had to contribute to the hype, didn’t you? “Shark Week” is over, but you’re still talking about it. Chalk up another “win” for Discovery Channel.

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  12. 12. gmperkins 2:43 pm 08/13/2013

    I didn’t know about this until I read it here but is this really a problem with Discovery or with American’s? I mean, shouldn’t adults know there isn’t a Megalodon? Harkens back to when they did war of worlds on the radio. It is just a fact that some people are panicky and foolish.

    Anyways, too much fuss over nothing.

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  13. 13. karl 3:52 pm 08/14/2013

    this is a buisness oportunity for Discovery, create your own mythical creature and charge anyone to show a bite from a megalodon…
    wait, here come Adam and Jaimie with a ton of C4 to test the myth that a megalodon can chew it and still live!
    Discovery channel was intresting when it was filled with documentaries about the world, but that was obviously too boring for the greater population, as a buisness it will start airing aliens, witches and ghouls soon enough.
    I had found marginally useful the mockumentary on mermaids because it gave a crow’s nest view of the way a new species is discovered, arguably, the “scientists” had to put together the blurb, the remains on the shark, etc, and propose a way an ape would have evolved into a marine life form, but it is more apt to april’s fools than to shark week.

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  14. 14. rkipling 12:06 pm 08/15/2013

    Ms. D’Costa,

    I didn’t mean to imply, as we’ve all heard people do, that watching any particular type of programing necessarily reflects positive or negative attributes of the viewer. Well, at least not the programing under discussion anyway. People should watch what entertains them. If there were reality shows you enjoyed, it was possible I was missing something. I’ll check out Dirtiest Jobs.

    I watched a few clips from Megalodon and now have a better understanding of the hubbub. While they were intentionally deceptive (We can only hope they knew it was actually extinct.), it struck me as “Blair Witch meets the Loch Ness Monster.” With wide access to search engines, anyone with mild curiosity can look it up. Megalodons probably wouldn’t keep the low profile coelacanths have. So, if they were still around, they wouldn’t be as camera shy as Nessie.

    It’s difficult for me to be righteously indignant over The Discovery Channel sullying their reputation over programing like this. People should watch what they enjoy. I wouldn’t enjoy having to watch the Bolshoi Channel all the time.

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  15. 15. Don’t Question Me | Southern Girl in the City 10:50 am 08/21/2013

    [...] How Our Love Affair With Reality Television Created Megalodon ( [...]

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  16. 16. Geopelia 7:37 am 08/28/2013

    The Whale Shark is a huge creature. How would it compare with Megalodon? Fortunately it eats small fish and plankton.
    The Colossal Squid exists. Can we really be certain Megalodon too isn’t still around somewhere in the ocean depths? As it needn’t surface to breathe, humans would probably never see it.
    The Tuatara still survives. All its relatives died with the dinosaurs.

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  17. 17. Anchovy_Rancher 4:28 pm 04/3/2014

    Well, I know I’m tired of “realty.” Pesky philosophy of “owning the Earth.” Stupid, if you ask me.

    Yea, yea…I know your meant to write “reality.”

    Link to this
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