Shark Week Stats Show Science Sells

By Christie Wilcox | July 17, 2015 8:00 am

It’s no secret that last year I had no love for Discovery Channel’s annual fin fest. Shark Week 2014 kicked off with yet another fake documentary, included a reprise of their infamous Megalodon mockumentary, and had what I might argue was the worst shark week special of all time, set right here in Hawaii. It was incredibly disheartening to see Discovery double down on the B.S. after the initial Megalodon special prompted an outpouring of anger from scientists and viewers. Given the drop in viewership from 2013 to 2014, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one disappointed by the channel’s choices, and that there were serious concerns coming from critics and fans alike. The disgustingly-awful Eaten Alive in December was simply the last straw; I was certain that there was no hope for the once-educational network. Then Rich Ross stepped up as the new president, stating that he was going to get rid of the faked footage and gaudy stunts, and suddenly, there was a glimmer of light in the deep, deep darkness.

Rich kept his promise, delivering a Shark Week that even softened the heart of the scientist dubbed its biggest critic, David Shiffman. In a public statement on his Facebook page, the PhD candidate at the University of Miami said he was “very pleased with the improvements this year.”

“There was a much higher focus on science and biodiversity, and greatly reduced fearmongering and pseudoscience. Some of the shows from this year will inspire kids to become scientists or conservationists, and I won’t have to correct misconceptions caused by this year’s programming when I speak to schoolchildren over the coming months!” (see his detailed reviews of each show here)

Even the ads were better, if you ask me: in place of the sexist, sensationalized chum spot from last year was this lovely beach scene, completely devoid of blood and gore:

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But the real question is: did the rest of Discovery’s viewers feel the same way?

Rough Start, Solid Finish

Discovery took a risk moving Shark Week out of its usual August time and unluckily had their 2015 kickoff special in head-to-head combat with a record-setting Women’s World Cup. Not surprisingly, viewership was down on Sunday compared with 2013 and 2014, and the trend continued on Monday. But on Tuesday night, the quality of programming really started to make a difference. For the past two years, Shark Week viewership has tanked as the week goes on, presumably because viewers became tired of the trite specials and faked nonsense. But this year, viewership held strong:

In 2014, viewers tuned out after the kickoff special. This year, they stuck around.

In 2014, viewers tuned out after the kickoff special. This year, they stuck around.
(Dashed lines are the raw numbers, while the solid lines are linear trendlines)

No special was able to steal the title of most-watched from 2013’s Megalodon, but on average, the shows the rest of the week performed better in 2015 than they did in the past three years, according to Nielsen TV Ratings (provided by TV By The Numbers). Shark Week fueled Discovery to the most-watched network during primetime for cable for the week ending on July 12th — last year, the Chondrichthyean carnage couldn’t land the top slot, which instead went to Disney, and in 2013, USA came out on top. And in their target demographic, Shark Week 2015 had the franchise’s highest rating in its 28-year history: a 1.46 primetime rating among adults aged 25-54.

This increase represents actual engagement — Discovery is finally listening to their audience.

This increase in average viewership represents actual engagement past opening night— Discovery is finally listening to their audience.

Shark Social

Last year, I blasted Discovery for spinning the online backlash as a positive:

“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.”

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 12.00.26 AMScreen Shot 2015-07-16 at 11.59.35 PM

I think they’ve come to realize that pleasing their audience is more important than breaking social media records. This year, they replied to comments on their Facebook, interacted with scientists and viewers on Twitter, and really made the effort to engage their audience instead of troll them. Combine that kind of media savvy with the educational, scientific programming that everyone has been demanding, and it’s no surprise that the comments were by and large positive this year.

But, that said, this year’s Shark Week had far fewer social media mentions than the past two years. When the social gurus at Sysomos examined this year’s mentions, they found the terms “Shark Week,” “#SharkWeek,” “SharkWeek2015” and “#SharkWeek15” were said 927,193 across blogs, forums, online news and Twitter over the 8 days of programming (July 5-12, 2015). That included 1,211 blog posts, 2,691 online news articles, 2,287 forum postings and 921,004 tweets, and while that is a good number, it’s barely more than half of the 1.6 million mentions they found across the same channels in 2014. Most surprisingly, Sysomos’ sentiment tracker still read 40% of the tweets as negative. But, the crack team at Sysomos dug a little deeper:

“Last year, when we saw a large amount of negative talk surrounding Shark Week, it was due to people being upset around the programming. However, when we looked at a buzzgraph around this year’s Shark Week we found that the negative talk was actually stemming from shark talk. Words like “attack,” “bite” and “predator” were found throughout our text analytics this year, which technically have a negative connotation so would explain the large amount of negative sentiment.

… While numbers were down for Shark Week this year when we compared it to last year, by diving in deeper it actually turned out that people seemed to be more engaged with the actual shark content rather than complaining about being fooled.”

Gone were the angry viewers posting negative tweets and comments condemning the network, and in their place were fans actively interacting with the content. Sure, there were fewer overall, but I bet Discovery would rather see comments like these on their Shark Week Facebook:

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 11.51.19 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-16 at 11.54.10 PM

Swimming Forward

Last year, my outlook on Shark Week was pretty grim:

“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.”

Much to my surprise, it seems they have been listening. I’m happy to report that I was wrong about Shark Week 2015, and I’m optimistic that Shark Week 2016 will be even better. I didn’t think it could happen, but you’ve done it, Discovery. You’ve won me back as a viewer — and yes, that even includes this August for Shweekend.

Please, please, please don’t make me regret it.

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About Christie Wilcox

Dr. Christie Wilcox is a science writer based in the greater Seattle area. Her bylines include National Geographic, Popular Science, and Quanta. Her debut book, Venomous, released August 2016 (Scientific American/FSG Books). To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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