Not even the COVID-19 pandemic could stop Shark Week. The annual Discovery Channel franchise, now in its 32nd edition, remains a juggernaut for the company — which this year is using Shark Week to launch five new series while giving the network (and cable in general) a needed boost.
“I’ve worked at Discovery as a broad company for a long time, and Shark Week was always the biggest week of the year across the entire company,” says Nancy Daniels, the chief brand officer of Discovery & Factual. “Everybody loves Shark Week. Everybody loves talking about Shark Week.”
Shark Week has been called “Discovery’s Super Bowl,” and that’s not just hyperbole. “Shark Week brings in a different audience, a more expansive audience, than we get most other weeks of the year,” Daniels says. “We get a lot more A/B county people watching. We get just a lot more eyeballs than we’re used to getting.”
And that pays off in advertising. According to Standard Media Index, the event raked in $22.3 million in ad revenue last year, up from $18.2 million in 2018. And that’s just the domestic U.S. number — Shark Week is a part of Discovery’s schedule across the globe. “As with the Super Bowl, you see a lot of demand,” says Scott Kohn, Discovery’s executive vice president of ad sales. “The biggest difference with this is the Super Bowl is a four-hour event. This is a week-long event. It is one of the highest rated weeks of television for Discovery Channel and for the industry.”
Daniels is scheduling this year’s event, airing from Aug. 9-16, as such. Last year, she used Shark Week to launch the network’s big-budget nature docu-series “Serengeti” and new reality show “Undercover Billionaire,” after much internal debate. Daniels and her team had legitimate concerns about whether the marketing noise surrounding Shark Week would overshadow “Serengeti” and ultimately drown out its launch. But it worked — both “Serengeti” and “Undercover Billionaire” became hits and are in production on second seasons.
In 2020, new shows that will be promoted out of Shark Week include “Growing Belushi,” “Dodgeball Thunderdome,” “100 Days Wild,” “I Quit” and “Expedition to the Edge,” in addition to new seasons of “Alaskan Bush People” and “Homestead Rescue.”
“It’s an opportunity to reintroduce Discovery and all of our programming, through all of our promos and everything we’re doing that week while we have people there,” Daniels says.
Discovery will also use Shark Week to further highlight “Expedition Unknown” host Josh Gates, who has spent the past four months during quarantine hosting a weekly virtual talk show, “Josh Gates Tonight,” for the channel. Instead of the network’s normal “Shark After Dark” late night series that traditionally airs during the event, “Josh Gates Tonight” will go nightly during Shark Week.
“Josh Gates Tonight” isn’t the only curve ball to come out of COVID-19 for Discovery. Shark Week was originally slated for earlier this summer, in order to avoid competing with NBC’s coverage of the Summer Olympics. But with the Olympics postponed, Discovery was able to push Shark Week later, giving the network more time to figure out its programming plans.
With stay-at-home orders and limited travel grinding production to a halt, Daniels quickly began scouring for available content in the marketplace and overseas, which is how shows including “Growing Belushi” and “Expedition to the Edge” came to Discovery. “Dodgeball Thunderdome” was still in production last week, as one of the first shows to be shot with strict COVID guidelines (and outdoors, Discovery notes). “We’ve all been scouring for what fresh new content is out there that we can fill our pipeline with,” Daniels says.
Meanwhile, most of this year’s Shark Week programming had already been filmed before the pandemic shut things down. “I would say 90% of it was in the can or almost in the can,” Daniels says. “There were a few other things that weren’t, but frankly, of everything we shoot, it was easy to get a small number of people who have been quarantined and tested negative for COVID, out on a boat out in the middle of the ocean. It was probably one of our safest ways of doing production.”
Daniels stresses that Discovery has doubled down on the science portion of Shark Week (something that the channel has been criticized about in the past) — including one special, just shot, about what the pandemic means for sharks. “We’ve funded a lot of expeditions, a lot of scientists, a lot of new ways of researching and tracking shark behavior,” she says. “And we now know more about sharks than we ever would have known if Shark Week didn’t exist. We always want to drive that home.” Among the organizations the network works with is Oceana, which is advocating for the passage of the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act of 2019.
Other specials this time out feature stars such as Mike Tyson, Shaquille O’Neal (collaborating with YouTube personalities Mark Rober and Dude Perfect), Will Smith, Snoop Dogg, Adam Devine and a daily morning “Baby Shark” sing-along. Digital extensions include an online series with YouTube phenom MrBeast and a partnership with Amazon Alexa.
“What that’s doing is making Shark Week relevant for a whole younger generation,” Daniels says. “We have a very strong brand and we have an amazing tentpole event like Shark Week, that is ours to keep strong and relevant across all platforms to all ages and all audiences.”
On the ad sales front, Discovery is working with Jeep, Geico, Heineken, Nationwide, Burger King, Home Depot and Cooper Tire to create custom content, and has sealed marketing partnerships with companies including as Southwest Airlines, Ubisoft and MLB Network.
Discovery has also found licensing opportunities from Shark Week, selling branded product in recent years at retailers like Walmart. And Kohn says the company has grown its digital Shark Week business, touting that Discovery’s Go app has seen revenue associated with the franchise increase by 30 percent this year.
“In a marketplace that has been challenged from an ad sales perspective, we’re really seeing success there,” he says. “I think Shark Week is special because it is just one time a year. In this time of uncertainty and challenges, with families coming together to watch it, I think Shark Week is going to be even a bigger opportunity for Discovery this year.”