As Discovery Channel should have learned after the whole “Eaten Alive” debacle — a two-hour special in 2014 that promised to show a guy getting eaten alive by a snake, but then didn’t — viewers aren’t going to react too kindly when a promise for drama doesn’t pan out.
Unfortunately, it seems the channel didn’t quite take heed of this lesson. Viewers on Sunday were incensed when a Shark Week special, featuring what had been touted as a spectacular showdown between Michael Phelps and a great white shark, culminated in a 100-meter race between the Olympic swimmer and a computer-generated animal.
“I feel robbed,” wrote one disgruntled viewer on Twitter.
“Huge letdown,” said another.
Responding to the outpouring of viewer disappointment, Discovery issued a statement Monday defending its promotion for the show, stressing that it did not mislead viewers into thinking that Phelps was racing a real great white.
“All the promotion, interviews and the program itself made clear that the challenge wasn’t a side by side race,” Discovery said, according to Us Magazine.
“In Phelps vs Shark we enlisted world-class scientists to take up the challenge of making the world’s greatest swimmer competitive with a Great White,” the statement said. “The show took smart science and technology to make the challenge more accessible and fun.”
Indeed, there is evidence to support Discovery’s assertion. In the days before the show aired, some reports, including this Vanity Fair article, made clear that Phelps wouldn’t be facing a real live shark.
“I don’t think that would probably end very well,” the swimmer himself told the magazine.
Still, some of Discovery’s promotional material seemed deliberately ambiguous. “The world’s most decorated athlete takes on the ocean’s most efficient predator: Phelps V Shark ― the race is on!” declared a press release, which left news outlets and viewers both intrigued and baffled. How could such a race even be possible?
HuffPost was among the news outlets to report in June that Phelps was “racing an actual shark on TV.”
In the one-hour special, Phelps was seen coming face to face with some real sharks — but only while cage-diving. For the 100-meter race, the climax of the show, Phelps is seen swimming next to a computer-generated great white. The Discovery team had previously recorded a real great white shark swimming that same 100-meter stretch. Phelps lost to the shark by 2 seconds.
Amid the angry responses, there have been some viewers who’ve defended Discovery’s approach, saying it was unreasonable to have expected Phelps to swim with a real great white and that the channel still created “good TV” with the material they had.