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We can no longer blame the movie Jaws for our fear of the great white shark. But we can blame the Discovery Channel.

“Shark Week” had the right mix of visual horror, dramatic score, gruff voiceover and sensationalised script to keep you out of the water and glued to the screen. It was movie style fiction. It was filler for advertising. It had titles like: Megaladon – The Monster Shark and Sharkzilla Lives.


Sounds unreal, doesn’t it? Well, it was. The “evidence” of a gigantic whale-eating shark with the water born ferocity of T-Rex was fabricated. It was fake documentary.

So what? It’s fun. Who would believe that shit anyway? Well, children actually, and Australia’s PM, Tony Abbot. Shark cull, anyone? In fact according to a poll conducted after Megaladon aired, 79% of respondents believed the fearsome beast was still cruising the ocean. It’s irresponsible stuff from a “documentary” channel that prides itself on being “the world’s #1 non-fiction media company”. But who can blame them. They need to up viewer numbers to lure advertisers.

Advertising has killed the wildlife documentary the same way a trophy hunter kills canned lions – except you are the target, trapped in your living room. It’s all action on the screen: tooth over claw, flesh torn from bone – and that’s not between species, it’s between channels fighting for your attention so that they can get paid.

Even when wildlife documentaries don’t seem fake, they often are. It’s nothing new. Geese have been hand reared and trained to follow light aircraft so they can be filmed in flight. Predators have been baited to make it easier to find them and insects have been transported thousands of miles to film studios where intimate versions of their natural habitats have been recreated to accommodate cameras. But it’s astounding stuff, and it’s educational. We learn from it, we fill our minds and understand better the wonders of the natural world. But it’s been relegated to the TV in the classroom. In a world with multiple channels in the living room, action gets more views.

Wildlife documentary filmmakers no doubt lament this. You can imagine the profundity of thought that must come from sitting in pristine nature for months – even years – only to see that experience reduced to segments of blisteringly fast action crammed between blasts of advertising and repetitive recaps to remind the viewer what’s been going on since the last mind-numbing sponsored message. The real tragedy is that the ad breaks are more frequently filled with promo’s of other features which are just as sensationalised as the one you’re watching because the advertisers have high-tailed it to the History Channel where Storage Wars is in its third season with competition from the likes of Pawn Stars. And if historical relevance can’t get any more obscure there’s a whole new “history” channel, H2, featuring shows like UFO Hunters and Ancient Aliens. A lion gnawing on the entrails of a live, bleating buffalo just can’t compete anymore.

You think there’d be some respite over at Animal Planet but the predators in Big Cat Diaries have been written off for domestic pet shows like My Cat from Hell, yet another animal whisperer who psychoanalyses violent fur balls instead of dealing with the root of the problem: their owners. And if underwater wonder is what you’re after, it’s neatly contained in Tanked where, “Wayde and Brett are back to bring wild aquariums to life in an all-new season!”


Even Nat Geo Wild is following a similar formula by focusing on domestic animals and their handlers. For example, Shear Madness is about a city-girl-turned-sheep-farmer juggling her farm animals and her family of five children. Or you can ride along with celebrity-vet Dr. Pol as he cruises farms performing monster cavity searches on wide-eyed livestock.


But there’s hope. As always, the first to react to any questionable behavior on the part of western culture are those bastions of good society, the Norwegians. Not even the History Channel’s bloody speculations in Vikings can draw this crowd. They’re bored with pillage – It’s so 9th century. So they invented “Slow –TV.”

Norway’s National Broadcaster, NRK, fixed a single camera to the front of a train and took us on a seven-hour rail journey from Oslo to Bergen. That’s it. No dialogue, no score, just hills, tunnels and rails. It proved remarkably popular awakening as it did that sense of slow travel that inspires writers like Paul Theroux to their musings. A six-day ferry cruise along the fjords soon followed as did a knitting epic in the land where wool is regarded as a second skin.

They even lend hope to the classic wildlife documentary. Those somnambulistic communions with nature are being revived on our screens with NRK’s latest, Piip Show, a reality series featuring wild birds that flock to little bird-houses. These are scaled down versions of places we humans hang out in. There’s a children’s room where mom feeds a nest of chicks surrounded by pretty wallpaper and photos of grandma bird and gramps. There’s a version of a popular Oslo coffee shop called Java. No croissants here, just bird food. Tits pop in and out for a fill up, Magpies shoulder their way to counter, and if that doesn’t sound exciting enough, the odd squirrel sets the birds aflutter. And in the corner: a TV airing scenes of feathery friends, a silent screen completely ignored by the patrons of this little café.


To watch Piip show, click here: PIIP!

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Former editor at Africa Geographic.