Inside the Shark Week Vs. SharkFest Battle for Cable and Streaming Viewers

Documentaries play a key role in Discovery and NatGeo's summer programming push

Discovery and National Geographic’s annual battle for shark programming supremacy has crossed platforms to include both of their streaming services, with exclusive feature-length documentaries a notable part of their broader programming mix this summer.

Together, the companies will air 66 hours of new shark programming through the remainder of summer, the majority of it on Discovery’s Shark Week, now in its 33rd year. There will be 45 additional hours of new unscripted shark-oriented programming on the cable network beginning July 11 — 25 more hours than last year — with some also streaming on its seven-month-old Discovery Plus service. Nat Geo’s ninth SharkFest, meanwhile, boasts 21 hours of new programming over a six-week period that kicked off July 5, with additional shark programming streaming on parent company’s Disney Plus service beyond its three affiliated cable channels, National Geographic, Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo Mundo.

Chris Hemsworth, Tiffany Haddish, William Shatner, “Sharknado” star Ian Ziering and wrestling star Drew McIntyre are among the celebrities fronting nonfiction shark programming on the companies’ competing networks this month, while new shark docus include Eric Bana-narrated “Envoy: Shark Cull,” Eli Roth’s “Fin” and “Playing With Sharks.”

The escalating volume of programming, and high-profile names associated with it, underscores how important these ventures are to both companies even as other Hollywood rivals begin swimming in these waters. The annual summer franchises, that air globally, produce short-term and long-term audience gains leading to higher than usual ratings that in turn attract millions of advertising dollars. For these companies, sharks are the gift that keeps on giving.

“Shark Week is one of the most important things we do as a network,” says Howard Swartz, SVP, Production and Development at Discovery Channel. “It is our Super Bowl.”

Last year 21 million viewers tuned into Shark Week over a seven-day period, Discovery says, while 31.1 million tuned into SharkFest over a five-week period, according to Nat Geo. And ratings spiked at both as shark programming rolled out, underscoring how big a draw it is for viewers. According to Justin Fromm, Head of Research at LG Ads, 37% of Shark Week viewers in 2020 had not watched Discovery the month prior to the event’s launch. Meanwhile, 51% of SharkFest viewers had not watched Nat Geo the month before the franchise premiered.

“Both events are really pulling in this new audience for these networks,” Fromm says. “People come back every year to watch the content so it’s obviously very important to both networks in terms of audience and advertisers because we are in a period of event television as a driver for audience and ratings.”

Swartz has a simple explanation for the appeal of this programming, as much associated with the summer and beach-going as Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster “Jaws.” Fittingly, Discovery will air the movie July 10 as a prelude to its Shark Week juggernaut.

“Just like there’s something scary about clowns in the dark, there’s something scary about sharks in the ocean,” says Swartz. “There’s something innate in people that makes us fascinated and fearful of sharks at the same time, because they’re very large, they have very sharp teeth, and they are incredibly great hunters who have been around for millions of years.”

“Who doesn’t know about ‘Jaws?’” queries Janet Han Vissering, SVP development and production at Nat Geo Wild, of the iconic film, so well-known that its theme music connotes danger, noting moms warn their children about sharks when they go to the beach. “So, you’re aware of this animal from a very early stage in life and you’re wondering why? Why should I avoid sharks? How should I avoid sharks? Should I like or love sharks or should I hate them? There is a cultural draw.”

Both networks’ lineups feature marine science content intended to dispel fears associated with sharks by educating people on the animals’ value, but it is no secret that celebrity stunts are a programming mainstay.

“Shark Beach With Chris Hemsworth” kicked off Nat Geo’s SharkFest, while Discovery has “Brad Paisley’s Shark Country,” “Dr. Pimple Popper Pops Shark Week” (featuring reality star-dermatologist Dr. Sandra Lee) and “The Real Sharknado,” which teams Ziering and “Sharknado” co-star Tara Reid with scientist Dr. Tristan Guttridge to determine whether or not sharks circling in a tornado and risking their lives to attack humans could actually happen. (Is a scientist needed to answer that question?)

But the Tom Brady of Shark Week and SharkFest this year are feature documentaries.

While premium docs like Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon’s 2014 “Mission Blue” have been part of Shark Week in the past, the advent of streaming services have allowed both networks to include more premium documentary content to their roster of programming- arguably giving both tentpoles a legitimacy boost.

This year Discovery acquired two docus — “Envoy: Shark Cull” and “Fin” – that will be featured as part of Shark Week, but only available on Discovery Plus. SharkFest will stream Sally Aitken’s “Playing With Sharks” exclusively on Disney Plus.

Streaming all three docus makes sense to Fromm.

“This is another great opportunity (for both cable networks) to drive subscribers to their respective streaming services,” Fromm explains. “And for National Geographic there might not be as much of an awareness of the type of content they are producing on Disney Plus so it’s a great way to introduce it to audiences.”

Andre Borell’s “Envoy: Shark Cull” follows ocean conservation as they reveal the importance of sharks while uncovering the longest marine cull in history. Roth’s “Fin,” produced by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Away company, follows scientists, researchers, and activists who sail the globe exposing a criminal enterprise that has led to the death of millions of sharks.

“‘Fin’ is the scariest film I’ve ever made, and certainly the most dangerous, but I wanted to send a message of hope to end this needless massacre of sharks,” Roth recently told Variety. “They keep our oceans clean to produce half our oxygen, and they deserve our respect and deserve to be saved.”

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(Valerie Taylor, subject of “Playing With Sharks,” reads “Jaws” while in her element circa 1982) Courtesy of Ron & Valerie Taylor

“Playing With Sharks” centers on Australian icon, conservationist and filmmaker Valerie Taylor, also featured in “Shark Beach With Chris Hemsworth.” According to Aitken, producer Bettina Dalton got the idea for the National Geographic Films docu after watching Brett Morgen’s documentary about Jane Goodall in 2017. The director had never made a film about sharks but understood their appeal.

“There is a deep-seated fascination with something that does terrify and exhilarate us, and I think that sharks fit that bill,” Aitken says.

Other Hollywood players are getting in on the shark action. Last spring, HBO Documentary Films financed director Ivy Meeropol’s upcoming documentary about the shores of Cape Cod becoming a hot spot for great white sharks. And Netflix’s “Our Planet” series with David Attenborough has featured shark episodes.

“Nature clearly is a huge opportunity and Netflix understands the draw,” says Fromm.

To keep viewership growing year to year, both Discovery and Nat Geo have to develop new content about sharks. While they share a common goal when it comes to their respective shark tentpoles – education and conservation — they don’t see many similarities between their content and insist there is room for more growth in the sector. Both Discovery’s Swartz and Nat Geo’s Han Vissering, incidentally, previously worked for the other company.

“There’s so many different species of sharks that you could go all along the East coast of the U.S. and have different shark stories because they’re in different waters and they’re facing different challenges,” says Han Vissering, who stresses Nat Geo’s focus on science-based programming over dramatization while Swartz stresses how successful Discovery has been with Shark Week. “And then you can go to the Pacific and there’s a whole other batch of stories.

“But on top of that, you have climate change and that alters how animals behave,” she continues. “When you have sharks, who are at the top of the food chain in the oceans, feel some change in the ocean then there is a cascading effect and therefore you are going to get new behavior and that’s what we’re looking for. So, I don’t think that there will ever be a dearth of shark stories to tell.”

(Top: Andre Borell shooting “Envoy: Shark Cull,” which will stream exclusively on Discovery Plus; center, Valerie Taylor, the focus of National Geographic Films’ “Playing With Sharks,” which will exclusively on Disney Plus.)