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Discovery Channel's new president promises they'll stop making stuff up

A massive inflatable Great White Shark adorns the Discovery Channel HQ building in Silver Spring, Maryland.
A massive inflatable Great White Shark adorns the Discovery Channel HQ building in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Glyn Lowe/Flickr

In recent years, the Discovery Channel has taken a lot of flak from scientists for airing complete and total bullshit.

Consider: The channel's popular Shark Week features a fake documentary about a made-up shark the size of a submarine. There's an error-ridden special falsely claiming that the long-extinct Megalodon is still alive. More recently, there was the Eaten Alive fiasco, in which the channel tried (and failed) to get a green anaconda to eat a person. And if that's not enough, the channel featured two episodes about how mermaids may well exist.

But is all this nonsense now about to come to an end?

The new head of Discovery Channel, Rich Ross, has lately been telling reporters that he wants to put a stop to at least some of the channel's outrageous stunts and fake documentaries. Here's what he said about the Megalodon special, according to Entertainment Weekly:

"I don't think it's actually right for Discovery Channel," said Ross, the former CEO of Shine America, when asked about the film. "And it's [a type of programming] that I think in some ways has run its course. I don't think you'll be sitting with me here next year asking me a question about something I put on — whether a series or a special — where that's the dilemma.

They've done very well, many of them, but it's not something that's right for us ... if something [has been previously ordered], it's probably still coming. But I'm telling you where I am and how I feel moving forward."

Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives first aired in 2013 and claims that a giant shark that's been extinct for millions of years is now lurking in the oceans again, perhaps attacking people. The show got 4.8 million viewers last year. It's also completely bogus. There's no evidence that Megalodons are still around. None:

So it's nice to hear that Ross wants to put a stop to it. Though note that a whole bunch of different Shark Week shows are misleading, not just this one. As scientist David Shiffman points out, many Shark Week shows promote undue fear-mongering and glorify shark harassment. And the program has a troubling track record of lying to and misrepresenting scientists' work. So we'll have to see how much actually changes in the years ahead.

Ross also didn't sound thrilled with the anaconda stunt on Eaten Alive:

"It was the right intention with a packaging that was misleading," Ross said. "Paul Rosolie cares deeply about snakes and wanted to draw attention [to deforestation]. [But] you don't have to be so sensational. In his mind he thought [being eaten by the snake] was actually possible. But the fever of that story got out of control. So whether it's about a title [adding] a question mark ... for me I'd rather be in a situation where the story is clearer, and you don't expect at the end something that can't possibly happen."

Eaten Alive was heavily criticized by herpetologists, who noted that the show barely tried to teach anyone any actual facts about anacondas. Instead, there was a lot of sensationalism and, at the very end, a man trying to jam his head into the mouth of a much-too-small anaconda:

It remains to be seen whether Discovery is making a broad about-face or just cutting back on its most egregious stuff. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the channel largely focused on educational programming. It was only in the past decade that Discovery began hyping up made-up sharks and mermaids in order to lure viewers. But that, in turn, has now sparked a backlash — particularly from vocal scientists. And Ross's comments seem to be an acknowledgment that, at the very least, all this bad press is untenable.

There's also no obvious reason why Discovery Channel has to make things up. After all, sharks and anacondas are inherently fascinating. Megalodon may be extinct, but it still had jaws strong enough to crush an automobile. In theory, it should be possible to stick to the facts and still make compelling television.

Further reading

-- Our post from last year: "Shark Week is once again making things up"

-- Read shark scientist David Shiffman's open letter to incoming president Rich Ross. He notes that Shark Week has a lot of problems besides the Megalodon special. You can find some of Shiffman's earlier criticism here.

-- Here's a good rundown of the problems with Eaten Alive