How Capitalism Made Shark Week Suck


It is claimed that free markets provide people with the things they want. Providers of goods and services respond to the demands of their customers. In principle, it sounds fine, and it often works. There are times, though, that it fails to consider the importance of things which are harder to quantify. Educational content is one area in which markets fail fairly consistently.

Then there's cable television, and the specialty networks that have been shifting steadily towards monetization rather than quality content.

In July of 1980, the FCC removed most of the rules limiting the types and numbers of signals that could be sent to cable subscribers. By the late 80s, this led to the founding of numerous networks with clear programming missions that you could read in the name of the network. The Golf Channel shows golf; the Game Show Network shows game shows; Music Television shows reality shows, American Gladiators, and SpongeBob ....

Wait, what?

Yes, we're all familiar with Network Decay. It's what happens when a network, despite having explicit programming goals in its name, reveals that it is a business trying to appeal to a demographic that is interested in the original mission and something else, and turns to the something else in search of more money. Sometimes, this works. The Food Network doesn't air many cooking shows these days, but its reality shows and contests are all still about food. Sometimes it turns out terribly. Which brings us to Discovery.

Discovery was a network about science. It was dedicated to fact-based, science-packed documentaries to help people to discover the amazing world they live in. If you've watched Discovery lately, you'll find that it is full of hillbillies, truckers, storage lockers, motorcycles, people exploiting natural resources, and a game show that takes place in the back of a taxi. At night, you'll see pseudoscience, with Bigfoot, ghosts, and UFOs taking the place of reality. There are a few highlights, like Mythbusters, but they are rare. The saving grace was Shark Week, when Discovery pulled out all of their shark-related programming and aired it. Since sharks are real, and fascinating, and it requires scientists doing their jobs to go film them, it was possible to at least learn about one topic.

No longer. Shark Week has jumped the shark. This past Sunday, Discovery kicked off Shark week with a two-hour “documentary” about the giant extinct great white shark, Carcharocles megalodon. Except that this program was entirely fake. You got to watch fake footage of a monster shark attacking a boat, fake footage of a whale supposedly bitten by one, with all the roles played by actors, not scientists. This isn't unheard of, sadly; Animal Planet recently ran a fake documentary about mermaids. But at the end of that program, there was a disclaimer saying it was fictional. Discovery didn't even give us that with Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives. Instead, this was their disclaimer:

None of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents.Though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of “Submarine” continue to this day.Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still a debate about what they may be.

This is despicable. Discovery has lied to their viewers, and betrayed their mission. They took an animal that is genuinely fascinating, truly amazing in its reality, and told lies about it. They've been taken to task by Wil Wheaton, Brian Switek, and Christie Wilcox, among others.

But what did they do wrong? They merely aired a program designed to make people watch it, which is how cable networks bring in money. And, as businesses in a deregulated free market, that's what they're supposed to do, right? What we have here is a clear illustration of when competition for dollars, supposedly the best way to solve problems and promote innovation, has utterly failed. Oh, it succeeded in earning dollars. But that's not what "success" means here. The crucial flaw in free market solutions is that they have only one metric by which to measure success: money.

If what you do brings in enough money to make a profit, you've succeeded. Markets, by their nature, ignore any measure of success that cannot be quantified in monetary terms. And this leads to clear failures like this year's Shark Week opener. "Provide interesting educational content" doesn't have a number of dollars attached to it, so if a business fails to do that, but still makes money, the market doesn't consider it a failure.

To paraphrase author John Green, humans have an unfortunate tendency to treat as important that which we can measure, rather than finding ways to measure that which is important. Classic free markets can do a lot of things very well, but they have critical blind spots regarding what is important. They can certainly provide most people with what they want, but that doesn't mean everyone gets the things they want, nor does it mean that the things produced are the best things possible.

Speaking of John Green and trying to promote quality over quantity, there's a potential model that might just get us out of this mess. John (and Hank) noticed on the Vlogbrothers channel that their Thoughts From Places videos were watchedless than, say, videos including giraffe sex. The free market response, given the advertising model, would be to make more giraffe sex videos. But the comments clearly indicate that the people who are the most desirable viewers love Thoughts From Places. So they created Subbable. There, you can find their Crash Course educational videos (which are expensive to make, but don't pay for themselves), as well as videos from CGPGrey. You can subscribe to these channels, and pay whatever you like, including $0. This allows people to support the content they love, and allows creators to continue making awesome things, without profit-focused models failing to give proper incentives.

Is the Subbable model regulated? No, it's technically a "free market," and quite voluntary. But is it a classical free market model? No, because it's not about making money off of whatever content is popular. It's an innovative idea that is trying to actually incentivize making things that are important, not making important that which makes money. Subbable is trying to solve the same problem that gave us a science network showing fake science. We need such solutions, because we need such content. Not because it makes money, but because it makes us better.