Shark Week is over, and as the week has progressed, the flood of negative press about Discovery’s favorite time of the year has weakened to a trickle. Instead, news organizations are talking about how well Discovery did this year in spite of the backlash. Shark Week “set records” say the headlines, and it’s no shock: given the increased sponsorship and the two-hour uptick in programming, Shark Week 2014 should have beaten 2013 with its fins tied behind its back. But guess what? It actually didn’t.
Discovery’s done just about all they can to spin the past week positively. “The King of Summer reigned with Discovery earning its highest-rated SHARK WEEK ever in its 27-year history,” begins Discovery’s most recent press release. The statement is so bold and so confident that one might miss the phrase “across several key demos” which immediately follows. A closer examination of the release reveals that the “good news” is riddled with caveats, in stark contrast to 2013’s version, which unabashedly bragged about being “the most-watched SHARK WEEK in the event’s 26 year history across all key demos” (emphasis mine). And even 2013 was trying to trump up the facts—it was only the second most-watched Shark Week ever in terms of total viewers.
The hard numbers are simple. In 2013, Shark Week drew in an average of 2,106,000 viewers during primetime programming. In 2014, Shark Week only garnered 6,000 more, even though they had 2 more hours of new specials and increased PR. In their key age demographic—18 to 49 year olds—there were 68,000 fewer viewers on average during primetime. Even if you look at the entire day, this year didn’t do better. In 2013, the total-day average for Discovery during Shark Week was 1,048,000 viewers—in 2014, that dropped to 1,035,000. Overall, it was only the third best Shark Week to date with 42 million total viewers, behind the 62.1 million viewers that tuned in for 2010 and 51 million viewers that watched in 2013. A 9 million viewer drop is not insignificant, especially when you have 2 more hours of time that you’ve produced to draw them in.
If you compare 2013 and 2014 Shark Weeks by day and time slot, a pattern emerges. Let’s start with Day 1: Sunday night is Discovery’s kick-off evening, and it was the night that Discovery aired the notorious Megalodon mockumentary last year. The fake footage seen round the world reeled in 4.8 million viewers, a good chunk of which then took to Discovery’s Facebook and Twitter to complain. Discovery decided to ignore the strong pushback and began 2014 on a similar note with Shark of Darkness, another 2 hour special focusing on a legendary shark that doesn’t exist using made-up events and fake footage to sell the story. Fool us once, shame on you, Discovery. Try to fool us twice, and you’ll net one million fewer viewers.
The rest of the week, Discovery was mostly unable to keep up with 2013’s viewership. Though the Shark After Dark talk show fared slightly better in 2013 (up 3%, according to Discovery), most of the programming lost little or lost big. The one notable exception was Alien Sharks 2, which netted more than 340,000 more viewers than the 2013 program that shared its timeslot, Spawn of Jaws. As the most science-based program of the week, Alien Sharks not only didn’t play into the fear-based hype of programs like Sharkageddon, it was the only show that didn’t focus on big, “scary” sharks (in other words, it was the only show that focused on the sharks that make up the vast majority of shark species).
Discovery’s viewers voted with their TVs, trying to send a clear message that science-heavy programming is what they want. That message is even clearer when you compare how the original Alien Sharks from 2013 did against the program in its time slot: Sharkageddon, arguably the most unscientific, fear-based program that Discovery Shark Week has ever created. Even with the hyperbolic title and promise to explain ‘the recent spike of shark attacks in Hawaii,’ Sharkageddon only drew in 2.4 million viewers, making it one of the least-watched programs of the year—over 700,000 viewer less than the same day and time reeled in last year with Alien Sharks.
But perhaps the most impressive PR spin was Discovery’s packaging of Shark Week’s social media coverage. Discovery was quick to point out that Shark Week “generated 70 primetime Trending Topics on Twitter over 7 days” and that “13 million people had more than 21 million interactions” on Facebook “marking the strongest year ever online”. Never mind that the Twitter buzz they bragged so much about was way down from last year according to Upwell—Discovery also glossed over the fact that the sentiment of this conversation was far from positive. A shocking 40% of social media mentions of Shark Week were negative, while an embarrassing 11% were positive, a recent analysis by the social media monitoring company Sysomos shows.
Discovery claimed their new approach to programming (read: fear-driven and fake) was designed to “appease a different audience”. Instead, they’ve pissed off a large chunk of their current one, and there’s no evidence that this new and different demographic is tuning in.
Not that Discovery is paying attention.
“Everyone is absolutely thrilled,” Michael Sorensen, Discovery’s vice president of development and production, told The LA Times just this week. “It shows you how engaged the ‘Shark Week’ fans are as we keep making it bigger and bigger.” I guess if by “engaged” he meant “outraged”, then perhaps Michael has a point. Shark Week fans are ‘engaging’ more and more through social media, telling Discovery just how little they appreciate the way they are lied to and manipulated. But the more Discovery ignores their comments, tweets, and posts, the less they will ‘engage’ at all.
So what will happen to Shark Week?
It’s hard to say. Discovery’s audience has tried to let them know that science trumps fear, and they’re sick of the same old ‘sharks are scary’ schtick. Yet at the same time, Discovery is going to find it’s hard to make science-based documentaries considering that Discovery has made a habit of betraying scientists’ trust, which means fewer and fewer will be willing to take the risk of working with them in the future. Besides, those scientists will be too busy fighting the array of myths about sharks that Shark Week has created to film incredible TV programs, especially considering that for all their talk of conservation, Shark Week doesn’t increase donations to shark research or conservation efforts (“It’s not easy to get people to rally around a creature that they’re conditioned to be afraid of” explains shark biologist Chris Lowe).
Meanwhile, Discovery seems hellbent on pretending that there’s nothing wrong on either front.
So my prediction? Shark Week 2015 will be even worse than 2014. There will be “more hours!” that will include more faked footage, more actors or waitresses portrayed as scientists, more fear, more hype, and more hyperbole. Discovery will continue to bluster on about how awesome they’re doing while scientists shake their fists and viewers do the only thing they can do to be heard: change the channel. We’ll just have to see if, after next year, Discovery will listen to them.