Shark Week: Discovery's Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

Discovery Communications' (NASDAQ: DISCA  ) Shark Week has been a popular piece of programming for more than 25 years. This year, though, Discovery gave into the temptation to add some additional pop-culture to the lineup, and it's making fans mad.

SyFy Channel's recent spate of outrageous B movies, from MegaShark vs. Crocosaurus to the very recent outlandish Sharknado, seems to have inspired Discovery to stir up a sensationalist and even fake factor into its Shark Week offerings. Shark Week used to include real documentaries about the fascinating sea predators. Now, it's succumbed to crazy mockumentaries based more on cryptozoology than the truth about actual sharks.

Discovery kicked off with controversy. Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, this year's Shark Week debut, turned out to be a dramatized "documentary" claiming that a gigantic prehistoric shark still swims in our modern seas. At the end of the program, it acknowledged that the show was based on "legend" and "sightings." (There are "sightings" of the Loch Ness Monster, too, lest anyone forget.)

Shark Week and Megalodon garnered high ratings -- 4.8 million people tuned in for the fictionalized show, which even included actors playing scientists -- but some of those viewers were horrified by the hoodwink. Actor Wil Wheaton, the now-grown-up member of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast, wrote a heated blog post about putting popularity and profit above proof and betraying Discovery Channel's audience.

It sounds as if Shark Week continued to stun and alienate long-term viewers who continued to try to watch shows about actual sharks. Take Voodoo Shark, which explores bull sharks in the bayou but also adds a fair amount of "legend" and "speculation" to the program.

According to NOLA.com, scientist Jonathan Davis discussed bull sharks on the show but added that the second part of the show, which posits that other sharks live in the same waters, "is complete B.S." Even as he tried to explain the scientific elements of the already extremely cool fact that bull sharks can roam fresh water, he said that the interviewers "transitioned to a question about some kind of Kraken shark or some crazy nonsense they'd heard from fishermen."

Let's not even get into what happened to the unfortunate (and thankfully fictional) Snuffy the Seal.

Fact vs. fiction
On its website, Discovery describes itself as "the #1 nonfiction media company." (Emphasis mine.) Right then and there, we know that it's betraying what it's all about, which calls "satisfying curiosity."

Discovery offers tons of cable channels, including The Science Channel, TLC, and Animal Planet. Nobody should take TV documentaries as gospel, of course, but channels like Discovery's should certainly "ignite curiosity" to do real research, not send people in search of myths and legends presented as fact.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' recently announced purchase of the newspaper part of Washington Post (NYSE: GHC  ) underlines part of the problem here. Media companies have to fight for ratings, and serious news and truthful programming often simply don't bring in an audience in droves. Who knows if his decision had meant to save the day in a world where journalism is trumped by tabloid-style coverage.

Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) CNN can also serve as an example that "what works" isn't always what's right. CNN's beginnings as a 24-hour news channel made perfect sense. Still, it must have become obvious that running the same top news all day just wasn't going to keep channel-surfing viewers tuning in.

CNN's devolution to programming that's often sensationalized, opinionated, and not news at all is sad. News Corp.'s (NASDAQ: NWSA  ) Fox News is even better at bringing audiences in this manner; it's been No. 1 for ages and was the major winner compared with its competitors during the recent high-profile George Zimmerman case.

Jaws of death
Being a media company is tougher than ever. Sometimes these companies sell their very souls. It's not good for any of us, even if it's hard to resist, say, the so-bad-it's-good entertainment of programming like Sharknado.

Discovery has done very well as a stock lately. It's up 52% over the past 12 weeks. Obviously, investors have been excited, but it's hit a few speed bumps lately. The Shark Week fiasco may be about much, much more than next quarter.

Even if Shark Week has given Discovery a temporary and profitable win right now, the future is far murkier. Its reputational ding would be an incredibly bad thing for its core business and its brand. Is a sensationalized Shark Week worth sinking the whole ship? If Discovery doesn't knock it off with the fish stories, its shareholders are going to need a bigger -- and better -- boat.

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