Share this article

print logo

Discovery’s Shark Week has forced a TV feeding frenzy

Nat Geo Wild is right: Sharks cannot sign exclusive contracts with a television network.

That’s a good thing, because the American TV viewing public loves sharks. Sharks are really cool. They swim really fast, eat things and occasionally launch themselves out of the water to snag seals.

For nearly three decades, Discovery has dominated the world of sharks with its annual Shark Week, bringing in millions of viewers and scaring just as many beachgoers.

But Nat Geo Wild, a joint venture between National Geographic and Fox, has leapt into shark-infested waters with SharkFest, its own weeklong predatory extravaganza.

This week marks the start of both shark events, and Nat Geo Wild, which reaches about half of U.S. households, definitely wants you to get the two confused – according to all of its marketing material – in hopes of stealing some viewers from Discovery.

“We want you to confuse the two. And you will. And we don’t care because it gets us ratings,” says the bearded narrator of Nat Geo Wild’s ad for SharkFest while “Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays in the background. “We’ve done it for years and we’re gonna continue to do it.”

“People are just looking for quality content,” said Geoff Daniels, Nat Geo Wild’s executive vice president and general manager. “This is us saying, ‘There’s a lot of content choices out there.’ I think that’s what gets us to stand out in a sea of fairly generic choices.”

Sharks have been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. There have been seven reported shark attacks this summer in waters off North Carolina.

But part of the fear they induce means they make extraordinary television.

“Sharks are really compelling characters and at the end of the day, that’s what we look for in TV,” said Howard Swartz, Discovery’s vice president for documentaries and special programs.

Discovery is also rolling out a “Shweekend” (shark weekend) later this summer for the first time.

Nat Geo Wild, which is only 5 years old, wants a piece of that whale carcass (which is a favorite snack of sharks) too. The viewership numbers are just that good. This will only be the third year of SharkFest and it’s seen 20 to 30 percent viewership growth every year, according to a Nat Geo Wild spokesperson. The company declined to release detailed viewership numbers.

Discovery has drawn flak from shark lovers in recent years because of the fictional nature of some Shark Week shows. Especially infamous examples include “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives,” the most-watched program in Shark Week history, proposing the idea that a giant shark species, megalodon (“the serial killer of the seas”), extinct for more than 1 million years, still swims the seas; and “Voodoo Shark,” about a bull shark from a fisherman’s tale named Rooken that, again, does not exist.

This year, the network pulled all fictional content. No more mockumentaries, or gratuitous reconstructions of gory attacks.

Still, last year, Shark Week drew 2.48 million average viewers in prime time. That helped turn Discovery into the top network in all of television for men ages 18 to 49 in 2013 and 2014, according to Nielsen media research data.`