Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

How Our Love Affair With Reality Television Created Megalodon


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 Wilcox, Time, 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.

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

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