Review: Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, 25th Anniversary features 2 new segments

Contributor: D. Chandler–

The Discovery Channel will have locked eyes glued to T.V. sets through the US tonight as anticipation has mounted for “Shark Week’s 25th anniversary. Premiering this Sunday, August 12 will be live video streaming of sharks from Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit in Atlanta, Ga., in partnership with Ustream.

This year, in celebration of the 25th anniversary they will be taking Shark Cam to the next level by giving the audience control. Using state-of-the-art, 360º video cam technology, you can now personalize your very own Shark Cam experience by simply clicking and dragging to change your view.

Shark Cam features seven types of sharks — including four whale sharks (the world’s largest fish) — five types of rays, sawfish, guitarfish and many other marine creatures. Keep your eyes peeled so you can follow them as they parade by.

“The best shot is when the whale sharks go right over top of the cam,” says TC Conway, Director of Innovative Marketing for Discovery Channel, and the resident Shark Cam Maestro. “They’re so big that they ‘black out the sun,’ so to speak.”

TC was at Georgia Aquarium last week helping to get Shark Cam up and running. “The rays and guitarfish love the cam. They skim right over top of it, and will even try to give it a little nibble as they pass by. They literally touch it.”

Recently, TC was asked what it was like to install the underwater camera at the bottom of the Ocean Voyager exhibit. “We were too scared to go in because there were so many sharks,” he said.

“I’m just kidding. We actually let the dive experts at Georgia Aquarium handle the installation. We were watching the live video stream as the divers were taking the cam down to the bottom of the tank. There was one blacktip reef shark that was really interested in one of the divers. It kept bumping his leg. It didn’t bite him of course, but it kept circling around and around. Everyone topside was very attentive.”

Discovery Channel worked with Immersive Media to set up the live, streaming 360º video cam experience.

“360 has had it’s challenges,” said TC, “because no one’s ever done this before, and for so long. There are 11 cameras built into the housing, and because we’re running them 24/7, they tend to get pretty hot. Luckily, the water is around 73ºF and the cam is at the bottom of the tank, which helps keep it cool. And the cam isn’t very big — about the size of a grapefruit.”

The campaign to transform Shark Week’s image — entailing events ranging from a closed-door meeting at a Stanford University biology lab overlooking the Pacific Ocean to a screening and cocktail reception hosted by one of Washington’s most influential ocean-advocacy organizations — is a work in progress. But it is already a case study in how two very different interest groups have decided they are better off together than apart: environmentalists who see the rehabilitation of sharks’ image as critical to their continued survival and a cable company that needs something beyond the next “Air Jaws” shot.

In an interview, Runnette, a former news producer who took over the show in 2010, said part of her work is driven by a straightforward motivation to drive audience with fresh material: “What can I still do that’s new, for god’s sakes, after 25 years?”

After all, Discovery already ran “The 10 Deadliest Sharks,” “Anatomy of a Shark Bite” and “Bull Shark: World’s Deadliest Shark,” more than a decade ago. So Runnette has sought to have viewers “see a shark differently,” whether that’s through advanced technology or an alternate storyline.

In this year’s version of Air Jaws, for example (“Air Jaws Apocalypse,” in case you were wondering), filmmakers have constructed an underwater housing so they could take 1,000 frames of footage a second below the waves.

“You’re suddenly so conscious of an individual who is looking back at you; that is so much more powerful than you,” Runnette said. “When he looks at you and doesn’t bite you, that’s, in a way, more exciting.”

And for activists — who include a group of shark-bite survivors working with the Pew Environment Group — the series provides an opportunity to reach the more than 30 million viewers who watch the shows each year.

“This is the ultimate melding of shark attacks becoming shark conservation,” said Debbie Salamone, a Pew Environment Group communications officer who had her Achilles tendon severed while swimming off Florida’s Cape Canaveral National Seashore in 2004. “I think it’s really helping us.”

Or as Mike Coots — who lost his right leg to a shark while surfing off the Hawaiian island Kauai — put it when describing being interviewed about his 1997 accident: “Most of the time, you’re thinking, someone else is making a dime off what I’m saying. With this, what I’m thinking is what I’m saying might inspire future stewards of the ocean.”

This year, Discovery is offering two new segments with an explicit conservation focus. “Shark Fight” details the experiences of Salamone and five other shark-attack survivors and their crusade on sharks’ behalf, while “Great White Highway” chronicles the work of Stanford marine biologist Barbara Block, who has used satellite and radio tagging to identify a critical migratory corridor for white sharks and other top marine predators in the Pacific Ocean. A third show, “How ‘Jaws’ Changed the World,” looks at the ramifications of Peter Benchley’s best-seller and the movie that it inspired, including how it contributed to the vilification of sharks.

Mark Spalding, who heads the Ocean Foundation, said he wonders why Discovery can’t make a radical departure when it comes to portraying sharks. “They’re no less powerful, they’re no less amazing, they’re no less complicated if you tell their story without making them man eaters,” he said.

But Runnette said she accepts the fact she’ll always have critics who fail to grasp the commercial imperatives she faces.

“If sharks ever become boring, we’re not going to be on the air,” she said.

Discovery Channel must have a little something in their heart’s for sharks because they don’t do grizzly or lion week but for 25 seasons they have committed to bringing their audience closer to the realities experienced by sharks.