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Why Shark Week Is Sinking Its Teeth Into July

As competitors churn the water, Discovery shifts its franchise a month earlier

Last year's Shark Week was Discovery's highest rated so far. Encyclopedia Britannica/UIG

In this year's promos for Shark Week, Discovery is calling it "The Most Wonderful Week of the Year"—and that's not just hyperbole. The network owes much of its success over the past three decades to the franchise, its annual weeklong programming celebration of all things sharks, which enters its 28th year with a bigger bite than ever.

Last year's Shark Week was Discovery's highest rated yet in adults and women 25-54, making it the week's No. 1 cable network in adults, men and women 18-49 and 25-54, while coming in first in all of television in men 18-49 and 18-34. "Shark Week is our Super Bowl," said Ben Price, evp, ad sales, Discovery. "Who doesn't love Shark Week?"

As Shark Week has evolved from a mere programming block into a full-blown phenomenon (its dozen-plus returning partners include Cold Stone Creamery, Southwest Airlines and Dunkin' Donuts), competitors have jumped into the fray, hoping to siphon off a portion of Discovery's audience for themselves. Syfy is bringing back Sharknado Week for the July 22 premiere of Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, while Nat Geo Wild's new promo for SharkFest (returning for Year 3) gleefully admits that it hopes to lure away unsuspecting Shark Week viewers: "We want you to confuse the two, and you will!"

This year, Discovery is fighting back. The network has moved Shark Week earlier than ever to put its stamp on summer. It kicks off July 5, a full month earlier than last year (and two weeks ahead of this year's Sharknado Week). In addition to 19 hours of prime-time Shark Week programming, its most ever, Discovery is also bookending the summer with an additional Shark Weekend of shows in late August.

As Shark Week dominates, Syfy dove in with its own Sharknado Week.

"Shark Week is synonymous with summer, and to me, the holiday that is synonymous with summer is July 4," said Rich Ross, who is overseeing his first Shark Week as Discovery president, of this year's early start. "Our advertisers and promotional partners got it in a millisecond. They can launch something that builds their business over summer rather than the end." Price noted that the July shift "has been good for us, especially in the movie category, where we've got more summer releases in it," including Marvel's Ant-Man, which created a special tie-in for Shark Week's late-night talk show Shark After Dark, featuring the film's star, Paul Rudd.

Not only has Shark Week become irresistible to advertisers, but it also inspires many of them to raise their game. Volkswagen, back as presenting sponsor for the fourth year, will launch its Golf SportWagen by playing up the notion that wagons, like sharks, are often misunderstood. Its longtime partnership with Discovery "gets the creative juices going in terms of coming up with ways to makes this a really integrated program," said Vinay Shahani, vp, marketing, Volkswagen of America. "It's not just about the teasers we'll jointly produce, or the ads, but what are some of the ways to engage consumers through other touch points? We're really fortunate to have found a property like this."

Discovery also credits Shark Week's surging success to a key shift in its marketing approach. "In the last few years, we stopped taking ourselves so seriously on the marketing side and decided to have more fun with it," said Lara Richardson, svp, marketing, Discovery. So last year's intentionally cheesy promos featured Rob Lowe dressed as a lifeguard and water skiing on the backs of two sharks; the network tapped Billy Idol to sing this year's "Most Wonderful Week of the Year" promo theme, inspired by Andy Williams' Christmas music staple.

While this year's ratings should also be goosed by nostalgia over Jaws' 40th anniversary and news of the recent shark attacks in North Carolina, Ross noted that during Shark Week, "we don't celebrate the fear and anxiety; we celebrate the animal itself."

And as much as Syfy and Nat Geo Wild want their own bite of Shark Week's success, Discovery isn't backing down. "I've never been afraid of it," said Richardson of the competition. "We're on Year 28—who's going to compete with us? Go ahead and try!"

This story first appeared in the July 6 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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