Summer’s here in full force, which can mean only one thing. Shark week! Discovery Channel’s long-running tradition celebrated its 29th anniversary this year, continuing its streak as the longest-running event in the history of pay-TV. This year’s Phelps vs. Shark race-that-wasn’t-a-race attracted 5 million viewers, and Discovery’s highest ratings ever in the 25-54 demographic.
How has this ‘fake real‘ event not just survived, but thrived in the Internet era? A few thoughts.
1. ‘Real’ And ‘Live’ Are Both Relative Terms. Successful TV Events Need Not Be Either.
On one level, Shark Week is absurdly arbitrary. Unlike other events (the Grammys, the Olympics, even purely pop culture events like ComicCon), Shark Week has no real-world analogue. Discovery creates new shark-themed content each season, but these shows are filmed at different times in different locations throughout the year. Discovery could air these shows at literally any time, and in any manner of its choosing, whether on a traditional weekly schedule or just posting them all on online at once.
Instead, Discovery premieres the shows one at a time in a single week during the summer, thereby creating a calendar-based event out of whole cloth. The weird thing is that Shark Week is an annual event that doesn’t have a fixed date on the calendar. Shark Week always happens in the summer, to be sure, but the actual date bounces around almost randomly between July and August.
This is no accident. Shark Week’s longevity is rooted in two genuine and enduring insights about summer TV in the US. First, there’s just not much new on TV during July and August (especially in non-Olympic years). The combination of lack of competition and viewer boredom created an opportunity, and Discovery was savvy (or lucky) enough to fill it. Second, kids are not in school, which means families are not besieged by homework and after-school activities. The fact that Shark Week is not just family-friendly (in the sense that all ages can watch together), but ‘educational’ is a big part of its success.
As this year’s Phelps episode proved in spades, events don’t need to be ‘real’ to be really entertaining. Yes, we all knew Michael Phelps wasn’t really going to actually swim side-by-side with a great white shark. (Didn’t we?) Phelps did really appear in the episode and seemed to genuinely have a good time. And he really did wear a giant fin and swim a 100-meter time trial out in the ocean. Having watched it myself with my three kids (now ages 13, 10, and 10), I have to admit it was pretty great TV. No one was asking to change the channel, I can tell you that much.
This whole event should give folks in the traditional sports broadcasting industry some pause. ESPN and others pay billions for the rights to NFL and other big-league sports whose ratings are declining. Discovery buys Michael Phelps a plane ticket and a swim fin, adds a CGI shark, and breaks ratings records. As I’ve written previously, our current lineup of mainstream sports did not descend from the mount on a stone tablet. Sports have been invented before, which means sports can be invented again.
2. We’re All Multiscreen Viewers Now.
In 1988, there was no consumer Internet, much less the notion of tweeting from a smartphone. Shark Week could easily have gone the way of the After School Special. Instead, Discovery has embraced the omni-channel, multiscreen, TV-as-an-app world in several effective ways.
First, Discovery now has the actual shark scientists and explorers from each episode live tweeting with viewers during the prime time premier of each episode. This is a great (and inexpensive) way to make non-live content seem live, as well as leveraging social networks to generate additional awareness of Shark Week. Legacy TV needs to do more of this and kudos to Discovery for doing so in a way that actually adds value to the viewing experience.
Second, the cable channel also uses Shark Week to drive downloads (and usage) of its Discovery Go (TV Everywhere) app. The authenticated app experience includes live streaming of new episodes when they air, as well as catch-up viewing of previous episodes in an on-demand format. This is a great way to increase engagement as well as taking back share from ad-skipping DVRs and ensuring that all episode views contribute to monetization.
Third, Discovery has developed genuinely interesting partnerships with advertisers. This year, the prize for creativity definitely goes to VW, which worked with Discovery to create www.landofsharks.com, a standalone website that includes an entire series of short-form, original ‘adver-cational’ (i.e., advertising+education) video content to promote sharks, travel, and the new VW Atlas SUV. This was very well executed and we expect to see more of this from smart brands and TV shows going forward.
3. Viewers Want Skinny Bundles. Or Do They?
Shark Week poses some real headaches for those trying to create skinny bundles. Many viewers (including me) don’t watch Discovery during most of the year, but still love Shark Week. This is one of the genuine benefits of today’s super-size bundles. When July rolls around and the kiddies start clamoring for sharks , it’s nice as a parent to be able to flip the old dial over to the Discovery channel and make everyone happy.
So what’s a broadband pay-TV (BPTV) provider to do? Sling TV and Hulu Live TV have both chosen not to include Discovery in their current bundles. This, combined with Discovery’s (smart) decision to put online access to Shark Week content behind the TVE pay wall, means no Shark Week for those viewers. Not a good move for these BPTV operators, especially given Shark Week’s attractive demographics. DirecTV Now and PlayStation Vue, by contrast, do include Discovery channel in their basic bundles, which is a good thing for Shark fans using these platforms but obviously adds additional content costs that squeeze already-thin margins even further.
To the extent other legacy TV providers wise up and create more must-see TV events like Shark Week, this type of event-based, pop-up TV content puts skinny bundle providers into a no-win situation. If they exclude it, customers miss out, get frustrated, and may churn back to legacy providers. If they include channels like Discovery, however, the whole notion of the skinny bundle begin to unravel, along with any pricing advantage these services have over legacy providers. Expect these bundling decisions to get more, not less, difficult moving forward as legacy pay-TV channels start to (truly) fight for their lives.
Shark Week, like Singles’ Day in China, proves that modern pop culture phenomenon need not be real (in the sense of real-time) in order to be real (in the sense of authentic and impactful). Expect more made-for-TV events on multiple screens near you.
Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.
Joel Espelien is Senior Advisor for TDG and VP of Client Services for the Corum Group doing sell-side technology acquisitions. He lives near Seattle, WA.