It’s astonishing to me that the sequel to Mermaids: The Body Found (2012) called Mermaids: The New Evidence (2013) racked up the highest ever ratings for Animal Planet, with more than 3.6 million people tuning in to watch the network lie to viewers about the existence of mermaids. That’s more than watched the first mermaid film last year. It’s also disturbing because Animal Planet failed to disclose until the very end—and then only in a brief flash—that the documentary was a complete and total fake. That’s what makes this show different from programs like the Science Channel documentaries that imagine what it would be like to discover alien life; those were presented as “what-if” very plainly.
Previous to this, Animal Planet’s highest rated show was another fake documentary, about dragons, which at least was advertised as a fake. They even called it Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real (2005).
This time Animal Planet accused the U.S. government of a conspiracy to suppress the truth about mermaids, offering a (fictional) claim that the Justice Department and Homeland Security suppressed the website revealing the truth about mermaids—just like the Forest Service allegedly “suppressed” Scott Wolter’s research in the Maya of Georgia and the CIA allegedly “suppressed” Robert Temple’s research into amphibious, ocean-dwelling aliens from Sirius, which would be… wait… mermaids! My God, they’re on to something!
The fallout from this act of corporate irresponsibility is a very large number of people—exactly how many it’s impossible to say—who believe that mermaids are real because the TV told them so. Apparently the Twitter hashtag for #Mermaids has yielded a shocking number of people who took the documentary for true, if we can use that as a representative sample. A sports reporter witnessed the Anaheim Angels debating whether mermaids were real after the show aired, and today a marine biologist spent an entire magazine article trying to explain why it’s not OK for TV to let people believe a fairy-tale version of science.
Here’s one tweet I found from an 18-year-old girl, and it appears to be completely serious:
Animal Planet began retweeting others who believed the show was real, lending an additional level of credibility to the program.
And what did the show’s creator, Charlie Foley, tell ABC News? “We wanted people to approach the story with a sense of possibility and a sense of wonder, and hopefully that’s what Mermaids allowed viewers to do: suspend disbelief.” He repeated these claims elsewhere, defending the use of the documentary format because it helped people “believe” in the reality of mermaids.
Does this sound familiar? It should because these are the same arguments that the History Channel and H2 make for showing programs that declare aliens the creators of humankind and the Jesus Bloodline the rightful rulers of America. A History spokesperson told me point blank that while they value truth, they believe their shows are intended as entertainment and that the audience is smart enough to draw their own conclusions. Mermaids proves that television retains the trust of many who accept what it says because it was “as seen on TV.”
We can laugh at the people who were taken in by Mermaids, which at least had a disclaimer at the end, but how much more damage is done by irresponsible “documentaries” that claim to be true?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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