"Teeth of death," "Shark feeding frenzy," "The Worst Shark Attack Ever." It is that time of year again, when the Discovery Channel brings out shows like these as part of its annual "Shark Week" programming. This week of bloody feeding frenzies and vicious shark attacks is part of a larger trend in nature programming. Instead of seeking to educate or to promote environmental conservation, these shows focus only on presenting graphic, sensationalized animal violence. Programs like those in Shark Week -- while they might garner high ratings and attract advertiser dollars -- all too often mislead the audience, exploit animals, and fail to promote conservation.
It is easy to understand why Shark Week or other shows like "Untamed and Uncut", "Man vs. Wild", or "When Animals Attack" would attract viewers. The subject matter is riveting, the editing is flashy, and the shows are thrilling and suspenseful. As nature writer Bill McKibben once quipped, the most popular documentaries consist of "big cats alternatively mating and killing each other." Shows like Animal Planet's "Untamed and Uncut" take this to a new level with footage of a marlin impaling a boy's face, a lion mauling a zookeeper, and a polar bear ripping off a woman's leg. This brand of mayhem and mutilation has an eager audience and has turned the nature film genre into an entertainment juggernaut.
However, even worse than these programs' shameless appeals to viewers' basest instincts is their impact on the wildlife they show. In a time when sharks face increased threat from shark finning, overfishing, and pollution (including the devastating oil spill in the Gulf), programs that depict them as vicious, man-eating killers only make it more difficult to convince the public of the need to protect them. We applaud Discovery Channel's partnership with Senator John Kerry to help end shark finning, but the general effect of the graphic Shark Week programming is not to promote conservation but to instill fear, terror, and hatred in the viewer.
In reality, wild creatures spend most of their time resting or finding food. Obviously, a feeding frenzy makes for more exciting footage, but showing such a disproportionate amount of violence gives a dangerously skewed view of animals. While it would be just as misleading to suggest that animals never hunt and kill, there is a major difference between showing the dispassionate reality of nature, and creating whole programming out of only the most gory and gruesome details.
However, in the rush for ratings and with limited funding, some filmmakers will do almost anything to get these "money shots" - sensationalizing animal behavior, staging or digitally altering scenes to deceive viewers, and frequently getting too close to dangerous creatures. One of the least expensive ways to create content is to send someone like Jeff Corwin or the late Steve Irwin to grab at animals and make them seem menacing and dangerous. These programs not only misrepresent the animals, but also involve the harassment and abuse of animals and suggest that such behavior is acceptable. Responsible filmmakers invest the time and money it takes to film animals over long periods of time without disturbing them. They take pains to keep their distance, to avoid disrupting the environment, and to present a balanced, accurate view of the animals.
Some defenders of the new wave of sensationalized, graphic nature shows argue that by being more exciting, these programs draw in viewers who would otherwise never be interested in nature. Creating interest in wildlife and the environment is a worthy accomplishment, but relying on graphic violence is taking the easy way out. And there is no justification for abusing wildlife or deceiving the audience. Filmmakers must use the story-telling techniques they would employ in any other kind of creative work - powerful visuals, interesting characters, compelling drama, humor - in order to engage viewers and create ethically responsible programming.
Networks, studios, and filmmakers need to improve the quality of their work and invest in nature shows that encourage conservation and entertain without misleading. However, viewers must also take responsibility for the programs they watch. We cannot expect to see more ethical, responsible filmmaking as long as we continue to support those shows that sensationalize and exploit animals.
Chris Palmer is the director of American University's Center for Environmental Filmmaking and author of the new Sierra Club book "Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom." Peter Kimball is an independent filmmaker and graduate student at American University.