Melissa Jo Peltier

Author of fiction and nonfiction; film and television producer/writer/director

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MEGALODON SHARKS AND MERMAIDS: How the Reality TV Paradigm Teaches Our Kids To Lie

August 6, 2013

Tags: reality tv, DISCOVERY, megalodon, mermaids, kids, documentaries

Imagine this scenario – two ten year olds – a boy and a girl - are poised in anticipation on the edge of the family sofa, waiting for the first show of Shark Week to begin. This year’s first show does not disappoint. It’s a two-hour tour de force of ominous music, leading passive-tense graphics over black screen:

“They are thought to be extinct.
But there is evidence of Megalodon’s existence today.”

The “documentary” is well shot, convincing, thought-provoking. Our hypothetical ten year olds will have a lot of great information to share with their friends at school the next day. Per the network’s own online poll about the show (removed from their site after criticism came to light), a full 70% of the audience of the show believed the information was presented was real.

A lot of school science teachers will have some serious cleaning up to do this week.

That’s because the documentary – “Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives” – was totally fake. A handful of real facts about Megalodon – an approximately 60-foot killer shark that actually existed until about two million years ago – were combined with photo shopped stills, faked footage, and actor testimonials, to create a convincing case that there is a whole lot more to fear when we go into the water than an errant great white.

I remember when I was a kid and saw JAWS at the Wellfleet Drive In. All my friends were afraid to go into the water that summer – and we knew it was only a movie!

Discovery’s fake “Megalodon” special, like it’s sister network’s “Mermaids”, was created solely for sensationalism and ratings. Hey, I’ve been in the television production business for 25+ years and I get it, I really get it. In fact, I exec produced three SyFy (then Sci-Fi) Channel documentaries on aliens and UFOs, one of which that purported to find “Startling New Evidence” about Roswell. Here’s a key difference though – these docs were for a channel that’s by definition about science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Ironically, our three SyFy alien docs were sensational, but also clearly all supposition, with Bryant Gumbel hosting and staunchly refusing to present (or even narrate!) anything even remotely speculative as fact. We actually did some real science, with scientists who weren’t actors. Our historical re-enactments were clearly defined as such. We interviewed real experts. And still, our conclusions were clearly “What If?” Our shows were fun amusement for SyFy aficionados, and for those who have an open mind about aliens, it gave them something to think about. But they were clearly entertainment shows.

DISCOVERY, on the other hand, is not a pure entertainment network, but a traditional safe go-to place for parents to send their kids for entertaining but smart TV. These kids go to DISCOVERY for “Myth Busters” – the antithesis of Giant Shark and Mermaid docs. I’m with the parents and scientists who are outraged at the attempt to fool an audience with just a lukewarm disclaimer at the show’s end.

Gawker put it cleverly: “Showing up for Shark Week (up till now a series of earnest documentaries) only to get two hours of a fake dinosaur hunt is kind of like showing up for history class and being taught Downton Abbey as if it all actually happened.”

Of course, who wants to limit what a network should air? HISTORY CHANNEL and A&E now routinely air partially faked shows like Duck Dynasty that are huge hits. Why can’t DISCOVERY dabble in entertainment fare, as well as science and factual programming? I don’t see any reason they can’t. In fact, I would love to have worked on a fake documentary – it looks like a great deal of fun. Fun – that is, as long as the audience is in on the joke, and the network presents it clearly and unmistakably as fiction from the get-go. The Mermaids special and even last night’s Giant Shark tour de force could’ve worked for DISCOVERY if they’d presented them with the required disclaimers – “What IF Mermaids Really Existed?” “What IF An Extinct Giant Shark Was Really Still Here?”

It’s amusing to me that the SyFy Channel has much higher standards for presenting such speculation as clearly entertainment than does the DISCOVERY network.

To look at the bigger picture, this is just another example of the Reality TV climate of lies seeping into everything we watch. The Bachelor and Bachelorette are staged. Docu-soaps like The Kardashians and The Hills and The Real Housewives are all “soft scripted” (meaning they’re written, but not by writers – by “story producers” who don’t qualify for credit or guild benefits. But make no mistake about it; those storylines are created behind the scenes. Nobody’s life is interesting enough to make a weekly series work – which is the fatal flaw of Reality TV.)

Those of us who know how the sausage is made recognize this in an eye-blink. I now live far outside of the LA production bubble, however and from my observation, much of the audience actually believes what it sees to be at least mostly true. Eventually, of course, all the lies will come to the surface. We now know Kim Kardashian’s first marriage was a sham to get ratings, and her new relationship appears to be a publicity stunt at this point as well – with the collateral damage of an innocent child brought into the mix. Years later, the Hills’ stars come out and admit their show was faked as well. Winners of the Bachelor and Bachelorette contests never really live happily ever after with their Prince and Princess Charmings. Even “America’s Next Top Models” never really become tops in anything, except perhaps a future stint on Celebrity Rehab.

How does this affect our children? As they watch what they once innocently believed to be true revealed as ruse; as they watch politicians say anything to get elected then immediately go back on their words; as they read gossip columns and learn that their celebrity dream couple is really just a publicity stunt to promote a movie, they become jaded and cynical about what is true and what is not in their lives overall. It becomes apparent to them, from our Reality TV culture, that lies are the way to fame, and that fame is more important than real achievement or real contribution to society. They learn that lies are the currency of success in all endeavors, and it really doesn’t matter whether they tell them or not. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is symbolically struck from the Ten Commandments. Because in our Reality TV world, the end – and the lie - always justifies the means.

The end, for the DISCOVERY network and the creators of Megalodon, has yet to be written. They’re taking the heat today, but will it really matter in the long run? Will DISCOVERY lose credibility? In my experience, they’ll only care – or change - if they lose their audience. Sadly, credibility has no place in today’s television, no matter the network.

I wish those who call the shots in the entertainment business would take a moment to look outside their own career bubbles and observe the subtle changes their madness for ratings and sensationalism is making in the worldview of their own children. It’s a time-honored truism that kids always do as we do, not as we say.

And what the Reality TV culture is doing – is lying.


  1. August 6, 2013 1:08 PM EDT
    Great piece. It's really pretty sad.
    - Charles Glassman, MD

Published Works

Reality Boulevard
"...a book in the tradition of great Hollywood novels, from Carroll and Garrett Graham’s Queer People (1930) to Michael Tolkin’s The Player (1988), and reads like Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 Network screenplay retooled for the 21st century" - Ken Salikoff, Kirkus Indie Magazine
"In this smart, funny, insightful novel, reality TV becomes all too real...Peltier examines the Hollywood world of writers, producers, rich kids, actors, wannabes and con men with a keen and often compassionate eye. " - Kirkus Reviews
"Once I started reading "Reality Boulevard," I could not stop...this is the best satirical look behind-the-scenes of "reality television" ever written." - Arnold Shapiro, Oscar & Emmy-winning Producer of Scared Straight; Rescue 911; Big Brother
“[Millan] arrives amid canine chaos and leaves behind peace.” —Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
Non-Fiction (Co-Author)
“As complete a tome on the subject as one could want…If the answer you’re looking for in this guide cannot be found, the question is not worth asking...this is an impressive piece of work.” - Bookviews, June 2011