My family and I had just settled in to watch a segment of Discovery Channel's Shark Week—I Escaped Jaws II, a harrowing report about people who have survived shark attacks—when up popped the on-screen feed of Facebook posts and tweets from other viewers tuning in.
“It's chilling, I'm on the edge of my seat,” came the news flash from someone named Moe C., followed moments later by a bulletin from a viewer identified as L.A.B: “Shark Week excites my bones—it kicks tail this year!” This was succeeded by word from yet another uninvited pundit: “Watching Jaws and screaming.”
By the time the hour-long show was over, we counted 25 of these inane blurbs—a fraction of the deluge accompanying all 13 Shark Week specials that aired recently. Considering I Escaped Jaws II was 45 minutes long without commercials, that’s more than one every other minute, plus countless exclamation marks from viewers typing “Holy Shark!!!” and “OMG—this poor girl!!!” Probably the only substantive comment came from a viewer who, reacting to the tale of a scar-faced Australian diver who’d been mauled twice—including having his head caught in the mouth of a tiger shark—opined, “I’ve heard of not giving up, but I would have learned the first time.”
I can appreciate that Discovery is trying hard to capitalize on the cultural phenomenon that Shark Week has become. Now in its 27th season, the weeklong series captured 42 million viewers during its mid-August run—and its numbers among younger-aged men and women are reportedly stronger than ever. Thus it’s no surprise that the channel is aggressively using social-media tools to keep audiences tuning in to what is essentially a gee-whiz, science-ish reality show.
But if I wanted a group experience I could have watched from a bar, or invited 25 actual friends over for an I Escaped Jaws II screening, where I’d be guaranteed greater insights than those offered by Moe C. or the viewer who wrote, “These survivors have the most luck ever.”
Or I could log on to Shark Week’s Facebook page and banter with the some of the series’ worldwide fans—Discovery reports that 13 million people had some 21 million interactions around this year’s programs. Here’s a typical example: Sarah Jane declares that “Shark Week is freakin’ awesome,” which prompts Lois D. to retort, “Shark Week is sucksome!!!!” And on it goes.
Shark Week’s hashtag and Facebook forced-feeding is just part of a wider trend towards real-time interactivity across all forms of entertainment and media. Ballgame broadcasts now include photo tweets from fans in the stands, along with in-game surveys and quizzes about the home team. Museums, whose exhibits burst with multi-media installations and instant feedback loops, shoot visitor photos that can be purchased and uploaded to Instagram. And news channels—from local affiliates to Fox and CNN—are fixated with posting viewer tweets reacting to breaking stories and special reports, with the comments tending more toward Ron Burgundy than Tom Friedman.
The worst may actually be yet to come. Movie theaters in China have introduced so-called bullet screens, projecting live thumbs-up/thumbs-down comments from audience members via a mobile app. Frankly, that sounds like a recipe for rioting.
Communal viewing isn’t always a bad thing, of course. I first realized this years ago, while watching a Marx Brothers double-bill of A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races in a packed cinema that erupted in laughter at every Chico gag, Groucho pun, and Harpo pratfall. I declared them the funniest movies of all time—until I caught the same two titles at home alone and could barely eke out a chuckle. I’ll never forget seeing Alan Shepard’s 1961 space launch while I sat cross-legged on the floor with my kindergarten class, all of us applauding with patriotic delight, or witnessing the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster on the open-office TV at an ad agency where I worked—the gasps of my colleagues still echo in my mind’s ear.
However, being swept up by an historic event or watching Jaws in a darkened theater surrounded by a shrieking movie-goers is quite different from cozying up in your living room for some hokey but still-riveting shark attack re-enactments, only to be interrupted by the likes of someone named Jordan Baby Hammy tweeting the banal observation: “Wrong place, wrong time.” Were Mr. Baby Hammy sitting behind me at my local Loews, I’d probably pour my popcorn into his lap.
Even if the posts were profound, Shark Week’s creators are wrong to assume they’re enhancing viewer experience by incessantly forcing my focus away from the action—no matter how briefly. My 16-year-old son, so accustomed to whipping his limited attention from one device or screen image to the next, tells me to get over it—that I should just ignore the feeds. To him, they’re just perishable patter, like the Snapchat messages pouring through his phone. “Just watch the show,” he advises, which is like telling me not to look at the piece of food stuck to someone’s cheek.
But there’s something else revealing about the live feeds. At a time when many TV sitcoms have eliminated canned laugh tracks, and some of the best network dramas (think Homeland or Breaking Bad) are presented without artificial, cliff-hanger commercial breaks, why does Discovery feel the need to hold up miniature cue cards encouraging oohs, ahhs, and OMGs? Here I am watching home-made video of a dolphin tour guide nearly bleed out on the deck of a her boat, and a giant bear of a man named Trevor Burns then recounts how he belly-wrestled the shark that bit her into submission. I think I know how amazing that sequence is on my own without a viewer named Amy F. informing me that “Trevor Burns is THE MAN! He can come swimming with me anytime.” Discovery deserves high marks for pulling in younger demographics, but do they have to treat viewers like we’re watching Barney or Dora the Explorer? Hey, gang—isn’t that exciting?
I worry that the next iteration of social TV will come with split screens allowing viewers to visibly interact via Skype, Face Time, or GChat. If the technology gets that advanced, I hope at least that network programmers will have the decency to offer an opt-out option to those of us who would rather catch the show and not the sideshow.
As for Shark Week, I’m going to be watching the next lineup of shows with a big piece of masking tape across the bottom of the screen. Hopefully, that will still leave room to be awed by I Escaped Jaws III.
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