There has been a disconcerting habit in recent years of even credible, trusted news sources to report fake news. It may not always be explicitly on purpose, but these sources have been known to put forward amazing content which is only very loosely disguised as being anything but real. Chief among this worrying trend are TV shows that have sprung forth from traditionally educational outlets, which have served to confuse people, spread misinformation, and inspire debate as to their reality. Here are some of the worst offenders.
Perhaps one of the most famous hoax “documentaries” ever was one involving an alleged alien body. The stunt took the form of a video supposedly obtained from a retired military officer stationed at none other than Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico, by a British music and video producer named Ray Santilli. Released in 1990, the footage is black and white and very grainy, purportedly showing a skinny alien body with large eyes and an oversized head being dissected by a team in biohazard suits at the top-secret facility. Santilli was very precise in the details he gave about the video, explaining how many rolls of film it had been on and even how much it cost him to procure them, and the video was widely taken to be the real deal. The “documentary” spread to over 30 countries, capturing the imaginations of the countless people who thought that this was finally the real evidence of what was going on at Roswell, and the “Alien Autopsy Film” became an absolute sensation at the time.
Although there were obviously skeptics, there were also enough testimonies by supposed photographic experts and special effects wizzes proclaiming how real it all looked and how difficult it would be to fake it that a lot of people believed. It would alas be proved to be a hoax once and for all when Santilli himself admitted to the fraud. In 2006 he came forward to explain that the “Alien Autopsy” was all faked and even how he had done it, but even then there was some mystery remaining, as he claimed that although the “documentary” he had released was bogus, it had been a re-creation based frame by frame on real footage that had simply been too deteriorated to release. Hmmm. Whether there was ever another “real” video or not, this hoaxed footage has not aged particularly well, and looking back on it seems almost absurd that so many people were taken in by it, believing this now admittedly very fake looking alien dummy to be real, but believe it they did. While the alien autopsy video was a supposed “leaked video” and perhaps does not meet the strict criteria of a documentary, it unfortunately set the stage for numerous faked documentaries throughout the years. Particularly notorious for these are what would normally be traditionally considered to be legitimate sources for credible documentary programming, namely the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and the National Geographic Channel. These are beloved channels that do indeed provide quality, very educational programming, yet in recent years there has been a tendency to release more and more spectacular programs of what are often referred to as “mockumentaries.”
These are programs which go through great lengths to pass as genuine documentaries, presenting realistic footage, evidence, interviews with eyewitnesses, and talks with various “experts” within the field. The programs are extremely convincing in their portrayal of events, and although they are usually marked as at least partially fictional in fleeting disclaimers at the beginning and end of the programs, to the causal viewer they seem to be the real deal, and indeed they are obviously meant to be taken that way. Mixed within the realistic depictions of various phenomena, these documentaries make heavy use of “expert testimony” which is often gained through less than reputable means. Real experts are often led along a manipulative, misleading line of questioning meant to draw out the answers that producers seek, which are then edited in such a way as to seem to be endorsements for whatever mystery the show is peddling. If an expert is not available, then the interview is simply faked with actors posing as professionals, with credentials that cannot be traced, and even the eyewitness testimonies can be faked with actors. “Found footage” and photographs are spruced up with clever CGI and spliced together to complete the ruse. The end result is a program that on the surface for all intents and purposes genuinely feels like an authentic documentary portraying real events and exhibiting honest expert opinions, yet which is at its heart a farce, with only very fleeting blink-and you’ll miss-it disclaimers labelling the programs as for entertainments purposes only.
One of the worst offenders in recent memory was in 2012, when the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet aired a show entitled Mermaids: The Body Found, which was created to seem like an actual documentary which followed the the research of a scientific team investigating the footage of a mysterious body purported to be that of a real mermaid. The scientists claimed that an autopsy had been performed on a dead mermaid and that the government had swooped in and covered the whole thing up. It was all done very convincingly. The show made it a point to make everything seem as realistic as possible, using serious, authentic looking interviews with “scientists” who were actually actors, a somber documentary tone throughout, facts seamlessly woven in with fiction, and realistic computer generated footage to give the implication that it was a factual documentary. For all appearances, the program seemed to be an authentic documentary program, and although there was a disclaimer at the end of the program alerting viewers to the fact that what they were viewing was a fiction based on “scientific theory,” this was not prominently shown, and was more of an easily missed tacked-on message. As a result, the vast majority of viewers went away believing that what they had seen was a legitimate documentary and that mermaids had been found to be real.
A follow-up program on Animal Planet in 2013 entitled Mermaids: The New Evidence, raised the stakes in sensationalism, and truly propelled the hoax into the stratosphere. The program was similarly made in a very realistic looking documentary style and opened with a bang. The first scene showed purported “new footage” of a mermaid taken by a cellphone, which shows the creature sliding off of a rock into the ocean. Upping the ante was another piece of footage which claimed to be of a mermaid encounter in the Greenland Sea. This clip shows a webbed hand touching the window of a submersible, as well as the ghostly face of a purported mermaid blooming out of the dark before the creature darts off. The footage was all fake, but looks quite convincing and is ostensibly presented as the real deal. The show adds in very professional looking interviews with the “biologist” Dr Paul Robertson, as well as a “former scientist” with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who talked about the existence of mermaids and both of which were actually actors. Topping off the whole illusion, the network actually made a spin-off website, which simply informed visitors that it had been shut down by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. The whole thing was so well done that Ed Stockly of the LA Times said of it:
It’s remarkable how well this fake documentary mimics actual programs claiming to reveal actual creatures. Substitute Mermaids for Bigfoot, Chupacabra, the Loch Ness monster, ghosts and aliens, and it’s hard to make a distinction between what’s real but faked, and what’s really fake.
The sensational program attracted 3.6 million viewers, by far Animal Planet’s largest audience ever. Unfortunately, although the network had included a fleeting, easy-to-miss disclaimer at the end, most of these viewers were convinced that it was all real. Immediately following the airing of Mermaids: The New Evidence, social networking sites such as Twitter were exploding off the charts with talk of the amazing footage, and clips of the videos were streamed at a phenomenal rate. In the end, millions of people were duped by the program, to the point where the real National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would go on to totally dismiss the whole thing, saying Mermaids: The New Evidence is just entertainment. No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” Many people expressed a good amount of anger when they found out they’d essentially been tricked, and social media came alive once again with those voicing their disappointment and frustration at the network.
Although there were the disclaimers announcing the shows as based on speculation and fiction, Animal Planet did very little to make sure that these were visible or prominent, and indeed did very little to let audiences know that the programs were bogus at all. In a press release for the program, the network went through great lengths to sound official and expound on “scientific facts,” pertaining mostly to the generally dismissed Aquatic Ape Theory, a theory that humans went through a phase of aquatic evolution, yet there were only two fleeting references to the show being science fiction in the entire 1,000 word statement. All of this has led to the idea that Animal Planet may have intentionally misled people on the nature of the programs. The show’s executive producer, Charlie Foley, even personally stated that they had wanted viewers to think of it as real, and that this was the reason they had chosen the documentary format. He would say to ABC News of the programs:
We wanted people to approach the story with a sense of possibility and a sense of wonder. Hopefully that’s what Mermaids allowed viewers to do…allowed them to suspend their disbelief.
Although it is unclear whether Animal Planet willfully intended to trick its audience and create a widely believed hoax, they probably weren’t too upset about the whole thing considering the record smashing ratings the shows generated for them. It is unfortunate that this success has ensured that other such fake documentary style programs have become popular and continue to be made, with Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel, two mostly well-respected wildlife networks, being the primary culprits. Another repeat offender in shamelessly sensationalist mockumentary programming is Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.” In recent years, the network has increasingly upped the ante on turning up the spooky factor with its annual Shark Week episodes, becoming more and more brazen. During Shark Week, the Discovery Channel has released several of these mockumentaries, which have served to draw in viewers and have the unsuspecting masses buy the whole thing hook, line, and sinker.
For instance, the Discovery Channel released several high profile such programs for several years running concerning the continued existence of the Megalodon, and these often involved supposed stories of aggressive attacks by the beasts. In 2013 and 2014, the network released two programs entitled Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives and Megalodon: The New Evidence. The programs offered up several pieces of supposed photographic evidence for the continued existence of the Megalodon, such as one photo purportedly showing a monster shark cruising past a Nazi U-boat during World War II in what is advertised as a “declassified image.” The photo was claimed to show a shark estimated as being around 100 feet long, and at first glance seems to be genuine, but it turns out that according to many astute commenters it was very likely a complete fake or at least heavily doctored. Other photos presented showed half-eaten whales and extremely large sharks swimming off shore, all of which are of unknown and questionable authenticity. There are also presented sonar readings claimed to be of massive sharks far larger than any currently known to exist.
The same programs presented the harrowing tale of a South African vessel that was purportedly attacked by a Megalodon, killing four of its crew members. The footage is presented as a sort of “found footage” scenario from a crew aboard a charter fishing vessel on April 5, 2013 in Hout Bay, South Africa. The video purportedly shows a very large, unknown animal aggressively capsizing the boat either through ramming it or biting it, which allegedly had six people aboard. According to the show, the bodies of four of those aboard were never recovered. The video is presented as absolutely real, and the program goes through great lengths to reinforce the genuine feel of the whole incident, even showing purported news footage in the aftermath that seems to show a news conference with South African authorities speaking on the frightening incident. The problem with this whole amazing account is that follow up investigation has not been able to turn up any official reports or news items that the whole incident ever happened at all, and the South African media seems surprisingly silent on the matter, leading many to suspect the whole thing was a clever, well orchestrated fake. In an article called Megalodon — The Monster Shark Lives! (Not), dinosaur expert Bob Strauss criticized the whole alleged incident, saying:
What can you say about a TV documentary in which the suspiciously good-looking lead protagonist — “marine biologist” Collin Drake — comes up empty in a Google search? Or, for that matter, his equally attractive “marine biologist” pal Madelyn Joubert, who joins him halfway through the show, and whom a cursory web search easily demonstrates not to exist? And, not to belabor the point, a TV show that starts with suspiciously staged-looking video footage of a charter boat capsizing off the coast of South Africa, and no references can be found about this accident (in which three passengers were supposedly killed) from reliable online news sources? I don’t know much about charter boats, but I do know that people whose ship is in the process of sinking do not take the trouble to center their subjects on frame.
Another rather dramatic incident portrayed in the program is the tale of a group of marine biologists who claimed to have tagged a terrifyingly massive shark from a shark cage. The huge shark was tagged and is then said to have lurched at them and then to dive at great speed down to a depth beyond which any known shark is capable of. Although the team claims they did not get a good look at the creature, they are fairly certain it was a monstrous shark, perhaps a living Megalodon. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to tell how real any of this account is. Another Shark Week program aired in 2014 called Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine, outlines the tale of a colossal, 35-foot long shark, named Submarine, which is said to prowl the South African coast attacking boats and whales. The legendary shark was supposedly first spotted in 1970, after which it is said to have stalked these waters and frequently capsize fishing vessels or ravaged sea life. The program claims that Submarine is well known by locals, and provides interviews with eyewitnesses who have seen it, but it is unclear whether these witnesses are genuine or merely actors. The Discovery Channel attached to the show an easy-to-miss disclaimer noting that the material presented is “based on rumor and hearsay,” but does not actually admit to faking anything. Nevertheless, Submarine is supposedly still sighted to this day. Is it a real cryptid or something totally created by the program? It is hard to say.
In response to the outcry and accusations of misleading the public with these programs, the executive producer of Shark Week, Michael Sorensen, stated that three disclaimers had been aired with the shows, including one which read “none of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents.” Other disclaimers stated “certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized,” and that “legends of giant sharks persist all over the world; there is still debate about what they may be.” However, these disclaimers still manage to cleverly avoid outright admitting any blatant fakery, and it is uncertain just what “dramatized” means in relation to the programs or to what extent it is used. Sorensen was similarly evasive when he commented on the shows, saying:
With a whole week of Shark Week programming ahead of us, we wanted to explore the possibilities of Megalodon. It’s one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, ‘can Megalodon exist today?’ It’s (the) ultimate Shark Week fantasy. The stories have been out there for years and with 95 percent of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?
Regardless, like the Mermaid mockumentaries, the Megalodon shows managed to smash ratings records, becoming the most watched episodes of Shark Week ever aired, so people are obviously interested in the topic. How much of the programs was true and how much is whole cloth fabrications? Is there any merit to what was presented in these shows concerning the Megalodon or is it all just pure made-up hogwash? It is difficult to tell, and the network remains quite ambiguous and evasive about the whole thing. Until a serious documentary that is more interested in informing than in sensationalism, entertainment, and getting ratings, it is probably best to take whatever is presented in these types of programs with a healthy grain of salt. Sadly, there was a time when the Discovery Channel was a place where one could usually rely on getting such genuine, educational documentaries.
Adding to the deceptive quality of such programming is the fact that these shows sometimes get real scientists to appear on them through false pretenses, trickery, and outright lies. When making a fake Shark Week documentary called Voodoo Sharks, about a legendary monster shark called the Rooken, which said to lurk in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana, Discovery Channel approached biologist and shark expert Jonathan Davis to appear. When Davis went to meet with the film crew out in the field, his inquiries as to what exactly the show would be about were continually deflected or even ignored. The frustrated scientist was only able to glean that they were supposedly making a program about shark research in Louisiana. When the show was finally aired, Davis was astonished to see that the program was about mythical cryptid sharks, which he had not been told of at all. Further adding to his shock was the fact that the show presented his interviews wildly out of context, things he had said were mixed and matched to make it seem as though he was endorsing the existence of the mystery shark, and that the interviews had been spliced together with other footage to make it seem as though he was in a race against another team to see who could find the mythical shark first. Davis would later lament that during his interviews with the crew, he had been led along certain routes and asked to say or rephrase things that would fit into what the producers wanted, including things that Davis admitted he would have never said on his own. The clever line of questioning also managed to glean responses to vague questions that could be used out of context to be responses for different questions. Indeed, this practice of deceiving and manipulating experts and their testimony has become commonplace on these cryptid “mockumentaries” and other cryptozoology shows in general.
Besides aliens, mermaids, and the Megalodon, we can’t forget about Bigfoot, and of course there is an equally misleading mockumentary about this cryptid as well. In 2015, the History Channel released Breaking History: Bigfoot Captured, which similarly used faked footage, paid actors, twisted expert testimony, and flat out lies to sell the idea that a Bigfoot had actually been caught. The program starts on the premise that a researcher has actually managed to capture a specimen, but really just follows a fake, paid actor posing as someone trying to capture one, and it really goes all out in sensationalizing Bigfoot in a major way. Predictably, the program brings in experts, in this case anthropologist Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, who would go on to very publicly denounce how badly his words were misrepresented in the show, and it also features a badly rendered CGI rendition of a Bigfoot actually captured and locked in a cage. The whole thing is really over the top, but actually created a Twitter storm of people wondering if it was real or not. The shamelessness of this show was very amusingly broken down by Jim Vorel, at the site Paste, who does not mince words when he says:
This style of BS programming has now been refined into a science of its own. The narrative elements are careful in going out of their way to not “tell you what to believe,” or at least not directly. Instead, they present you with mounds of fake evidence and rely on the impressionable viewer to “come to their own conclusion.” Ignorant, close-minded skeptic characters are used as straw men to shoot down any potential arguments before they're raised. It all taps into the same desire that fuels conspiracy theorists in general—the desire to be a possessor of secret knowledge, to feel intelligent. The History Channel execs understand that the more ignorant portions of their audience desperately want to feel like they belong to a fraternity of people with knowledge that “they” (whoever the hell 'they' are in this scenario) DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW. Perhaps they already believe these sorts of things—in that case, Bigfoot Captured simply triggers their confirmation bias.
In order to be on History Channel in the first place, the program has to make some sort of claim toward veracity—hence, the fake documentary format. Simultaneously, in order to not be called charlatans, the official position of History Channel has to be “people are just watching to be entertained, no one is taking this seriously.” SIMULTANEOUSLY, the show has to be believable enough to still fool people, because if it didn't, no one would be watching. Just writing that makes my brain want to gnaw its way out of my skull, seeking sweet freedom.
The problem is that no, not everyone knows it’s entertainment. And if you’re intelligent enough to know that, then you should also realize that it’s the impressionable people watching who most need a source they can actually trust in order to provide real information. These people don’t need entertainment. They need a network that’s actually serving their best interest—and for the record, their best interest is “Not having pseudoscientific beliefs that they’ll pass on to anyone in earshot.” This is the responsibility that History Channel claims it's upholding when a two-hour long program is preceded by a disclaimer on screen for a few seconds saying that the program features “some dramatization.” At least, that's what I'm told appeared, because I started watching 60 seconds after the program began. For me, and anyone else who joined at any other point during that ludicrous 120-minute runtime, there was zero other indication that you were seeing anything other than an (admittedly shitty) documentary. Not until the end credits, with its clear listing of actors in the “scripted story” segments, do they come close to admitting what you've been watching that whole time. Good thing that American audiences always closely monitor TV credits, right? Congratulations, History Channel. You’ve truly earned the title of “that network with less dignity than ABC Family.” Be proud.
Even if the networks are not intentionally trying to deceive audiences, there are obviously dishonest practices going on in the way they are presented for the purpose of generating maximum mystery and intrigue, provoking belief in the fantastic, and giving the audience what they want to see. Whether the ultimate goal is outright deception or not, these sly television programs do a lot of damage to the credibility of any potentially real discoveries or footage found. It seems at the very least that it would be helpful to make more of an effort to more prominently show that these programs are fictional, and to present interviews with scientists and experts in a more honest manner. It seems that in this day and age, with the blooming popularity of paranormal programming, it is probably best to view most shows on the matter with a grain of salt.