A feeding frenzy of shark shows on TV

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...."

It's been more than a quarter century since the summer beach classic "Jaws" immortalized that line, but it still has the power to evoke bone-chilling images of man-eating, monster-size sharks.

In the spirit of debunking all the deep-water phobias imbedded in our pop-culture psyche by that film, Discovery Kids on the Discovery Networks is launching Shark Week, Aug. 13-20.

The shows range from the scary to scientific, but they all target the kid in all of us.

"We really do see this as an opportunity to reeducate kids about sharks while at the same time enjoying kids' satisfaction with the predatory nature of the creatures," says Marjorie Kaplan, Discovery's senior vice president for kids programming.

Audiences will investigate sharks with "SciSquad," watch shark rescues on "Adventures of A.R.K.," and even hear from people who've been bitten by a shark and lived to tell the tale on "Real Kids, Real Adventures."

The centerpiece of the shark frenzy is "Kenny, the Shark," a live-action fable about a six-foot tiger shark who moves in with a family and makes life particularly difficult for Matt, the eight-year-old boy of the house.

Ms. Kaplan says the show provides a reason for kids to learn more about sharks. "After all, if you're going to have a shark living in your upstairs bedroom, you'd better learn a lot about him," she says.

Making "Kenny, the Shark" has been an educational experience for the entire cast. "The cool thing about them is that they're really interesting animals," says Spencer Breslin, the young actor who plays Matt.

"There're all kinds [of sharks]. They're really beautiful animals," he adds.

While the shows clearly feed off the shark's reputation as a man-eater, Kaplan says that it's only a "vehicle to engage [viewers] in the idea.

"In particular, we're talking about a crazed shark hunter going after Kenny," she says. "It gives us a lot of opportunity just to talk about how, in fact, people are far more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to them."

Still, "[Sharks] are very dangerous," says Ian Gordon, international shark expert and host of the Discovery Networks' other major shark initiative, a 13-part series called "Shark Gordon." It debuts Sept. 28 on Discovery's sister cable network, Animal Planet.

"But you've got to do something to provoke them or you have to get in the water with the sort of animal that is basically ready to feed," Mr. Gordon says.

"Shark Gordon," a show geared more toward grownups, will detail the world of sharks as the network hopes we've never fully appreciated it. Host Gordon points out that while there are nearly 400 shark species, only 20 or so of them are dangerous.

"The majority of the other sharks - bottom-dwelling sharks, the free-swimming sharks - don't do a great deal of damage to anyone, unless you go sticking your finger down their throat...."

He says his show plans to highlight some of the lesser-known species.

After "Jaws" immortalized the lethal power of the Great White shark, Gordon says, everyone wanted to see nothing but scary images of Great Whites or mako sharks or tiger sharks, all of which are "potentially dangerous species."

But he says he wants to include programs about "interesting little sharks that eat crabs. Or there's this other really cool shark called the 'cookie cutter' shark, which floats around in the middle of the ocean, has a flip-top head, a bit like a Reach toothbrush ... and takes ice-cream scoop chunks out of the side of tuna, dolphins, and whales that go past."

The Discovery Networks have what their executives call a deeper mission with their educational shark programming - to reduce the long-term risks to the world's shark population.

"They're the top of the food chain," Gordon says. "The whole food chain can collapse if we don't look after these animals.

"They deserve to be protected and looked after, just as much as tigers, or lions, or bears."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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