Shark Week loses nine million viewers, but Discovery says “everyone is absolutely thrilled”

By Christie Wilcox | August 21, 2014 4:51 pm

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.

Discovery highlights the few ways that 2014 did better—but a straight up comparison shows it struggled.

Discovery highlights the few ways that 2014 did better—but a straight up comparison shows it struggled.

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.

I guess Discovery is hoping that any social media mention is good social media mention? Image from Sysomos

I guess Discovery is hoping that any social media mention is good social media mention? Image from Sysomos’ Blog

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts
  • karlt6

    Discovery has become a wasteland of ‘realty’ shows like Bearing Sea Gold, Gunslingers, Naked & Afraid, etc. Used to love the channel- now I watch just Mythbusters and Deadliest Catch.

    And don’t get me started on Animal Planet….. What a barren wasteland. Their best shows are years old reruns of Escape to Chimp Eden, and Orangutang Island.

    • Metalhead Nick

      No, Mythbusters and Deadliest Catch are just as “barren” as in devoid of thought, educational content, etc. as any of the other reality shows masquerading as informative programming. Chimp Island, the same. None of it is concerned with actual science. I’ll let animal planet slide though, as they never really had much to offer anyways. They’ve been sensationalizing for decades. Top ten animal countdown…all of this sickens me. There is too much information out there to be an expert at most of it, or even stay abreast of it. I used to watch discovery so I’d atleast be exposed to something new, different, or thought provoking. Now the programming actually makes you stupider for having watched it.

  • Big_Mac_330

    Discovery stopped being about learning, science, and DISCOVERY years ago. Now it’s just a shoddy shadow of its former self – a channel that, like most of the specialty channels, has betrayed its core viewers and fans to rake in the dough and increase ratings by peddling crappy reality TV and faux documentaries.

    We cancelled our cable a couple of years ago, primarily because all of the specialty channels we used to love have gone to hell; they would rather worship at the altar of the almighty dollar and cater to the lowest common denominator of society than deliver the quality programming they used to air.

    • ianken

      LOL. “Almighty dollar? ”

      News flash: DSC isn’t PBS and it’s not a charity. They’ll learn eventually as viewers bail.

  • Keith Poe

    Editor using Discovery awesome shark week to build her self up true parasite disgusting.

    • Keith Poe is a stupid tool

      Learn English you idiotic troglodyte. People like you need to be culled

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

    All in all, it was a Sharkflop.

  • Brandon

    Deconstructing Shark Week – What You Need To Know

    Mike Sorensen is the defacto executive producer for Shark Week. He’s a smart guy. He figured out a while back that if you actively troll your loyal audience with really poor shark content they will react. In the world of TV programming ANY reaction on social media, mainstream media, good or bad,is money in the bank for advertisers.

    Bad reactions are easier to get and Mike not only knows this he and his small production teams revel in it.

    Discovery came out with a press release today declaring 21 million Facebook interactions this year, no mention that 80% were negative. Mike and his team do not care, they care about advertisers. And advertisers care about the numbers. It’s sounds counter intuitive, but this is how it works in the industry.

    http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.c

    To enable this questionable content Mike has enlisted the help of just two men, producer Jeff Kurr, and cameraman Andy Brandy Casagrande 4. Both men are responsible for most of the really ugly content on Shark Week. Both are seasoned veterans at getting top ocean predators to attack cages, smash into boats, attack simulated divers and live divers, and get wild animals to behave in a manner that looks terrifying.

    They are The Masters of Shark Terror.

    These guys also know that they can get away with it. It’s a cold calculus. If they were doing “Bear Week” rules and regulations would prohibit 99.9% of the insanity they heap on wild animals at sea.

    As the writer of this article mentions it also harms the sharks. These two guys have made an entire career demonizing sharks.

    Mike Sorensen knows that next year with more ugly shark content and a willing and complicit production team he can get Facebook, Twitter, and the mainstream media to scream bloody murder. He can drive the loyal fan base to distraction all while claiming that advertisers have the best audience participation ever.

    It is the most bizarre strategy ever conducted, and it works all the way to the bank.

    Industry Change?

    For the short term there can be no industry change until places like SA, Isa Guadalupe, and Stewart island decide to protect their sharks from film crews hell bent on the kind of ratings inducing and violent shark interactions from the shark teams Mike Sorensen deploys across the planet like a production plague.

    Jeff Kurr and Andy Brandy Casagrande 4 should be taken to task publicly.

    It is a crying shame to watch sharks mistreated for ratings. It is also a
    BIG PRODUCTION LIE. They get sharks to attack by baiting them, they also lie to audiences by suggesting this is natural. They know better, but in their world a smashed shark translates into a production credit on IMBD and that translates in to $$$ and more work with Mike Sorensen’s team.

    Change needs to happen as Shark Weeks treatment of wild
    animals is appalling and current crop of Shark Week “stories” are B-List at best. At worst they are whole cloth lies wrapped in damaged animals.

    Now you know who’s behind Shark Week and why they do what they do.

    For the sake of money, advertisers, and fame, sharks around the world have been maligned, mistreated, and demonized to get a loyal fan base to boost media numbers.

    It is surprising to realize that the entire Shark Week franchise is, at the end of the day, just a small inside team.

    As long as they continue to pull the levers of production, you can
    expect more of the same in 2015 and beyond.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Next year on Discovery Shark Week:
    SHARKNADO! Followed by SHARKNADO II!

  • Mary Beth

    Completely boycotting Discovery from now on. Our family loved Shark Week, but this made a complete joke out of it. On a more positive note, National Geographic has taken over, and does a great series of REAL shows with actual interesting and true research, much better alternative.

  • Karl

    Shark of Darkness and Megalodon were enjoyable and entertaining to those of us who haven’t lost our sense of imagination. Too bad they aren’t available on blu ray. Kudos to you for trying something new Discovery Channel!

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Hawaii. She is renowned in the science blogosphere for her delicate balance of contemporary science and scientific perspective seasoned with just the right amount of wit. Her award-winning posts have landed on the pages of major media outlets including The New York Times and Scientific American. To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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