Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock once sagely declared, “Live every week like it’s Shark Week!” But what does that mean? You could say it means to seize the day, to live as if at any moment, a hammerhead might chomp through your torso.
Or it could mean something else. Shark Week–returning Aug. 2 to Discovery Channel–is not actually a week when people get attacked by sharks. It is a decades-old TV ritual in which millions of people watch in awe of toothy monsters that will never get within biting distance of most of us. To live every week like it’s Shark Week, then, might be a metaphor for living in our media environment: to spend every week titillated by unlikely threats, getting whipped into frenzies, yawning over high-minded stuff like health-care policy and supping from the delicious chum bucket of hysteria. The President is a secret Kenyan who faked his birth certificate! Terrorists are coming to get you! And the world is going to end, six different ways! But first a word from our sponsor. Coincidentally, one of the best recent critiques of how media overkill works is airing during Shark Week. Summer is high season for media freak-outs. This year, we’ve had celebrity deaths, political sex scandals and a conspiracy theory that President Obama was born outside the U.S., revived by the likes of CNN’s Lou Dobbs. Sharkbite Summer looks back eight years to when a few high-profile shark attacks sent the media into their own feeding frenzy. The summer of 2001, postrecount and pre-9/11, was notoriously slow on news. So when an 8-year-old boy was mauled by a bull shark in Florida, a hungry press attacked. As the movie chronicles, minor attacks suddenly made headlines–a surfer recalls getting bit on the leg and a news van beating the ambulance to the scene. TV choppers swarmed the Gulf of Mexico, and Larry King asked, “Are sharks rebelling” But by season’s end, fewer people had been attacked by sharks in the U.S. than during the summer before. Sept. 11 soon came along and gave us an actual crisis to focus on. But it was hardly the end of turning fear into infotainment. If anything, terrorism became more fodder for it. In the years since, society’s fear of sharks and terrorism has not abated. However, we’ve added a handful of other apocalyptic anxieties: mass extinction, proliferating nukes, global flooding, swine flu, bird flu, peak oil, economic collapse. The end of the world has long been the subject of a popular genre of TV, books and movies. Now, in the 21st century tradition of fear as entertainment, it has its own reality show. In Discovery’s The Colony, 10 volunteers are barricaded in a warehouse, without running water or electricity, to simulate surviving after the end of civilization. The band of engineers, handymen and medical professionals fends off “gangs” , filters water and goes through coffee withdrawal. In The Colony’s scenario, a pandemic did us in. But, the show helpfully notes, it could have been “human conflict, nuclear bombs, natural disasters, chemical and biological warfare. Without warning, the world as we know it can come to an end.” Until it does, enjoy the show!