EMPOWERING THE CONSUMER: SHARK WEEK

SUMMARY

Discovery tasked me with spreading Shark Week across all digital and social platforms as well as creating original programming for the Discovery GO app. We focused on “Celebrating The Tribe,” the millions of people who “Live Every Week Like It’s Shark Week.” The channel was #1 in the 25-54 Demo during Shark Week, showed steady ratings growth YOY, delivered over 200M views on FB and YT, and had 2 “Top 20” shows on Snapchat’s Discover tab.

THE IP / BRAND

In 2017, David Zaslav and Karen Leever brought me to Discovery to help them create multi-platform content for Shark Week. I was tasked with quickly building a team that could spread Shark Week across all platforms and drive viewers to both the Discovery Channel and the Discovery GO app. At the time, Discovery had put all of its social and digital content under the Discovery GO team, and I needed to corral the TV creatives, the social media creatives, the marketing people and a new team of digital media creatives.

We didn’t just do cutdowns of episodes — we reimagined Shark Week for each platform, figuring out what was at the core of the Shark Week experience and recreating that experience for different audiences, on different devices, at different times of the day.

To cut to the chase: We did great. During Shark Week, the network was #1 in prime across 25-54s. The network had 3 of the top ten shows ever for a Shark Week. We generated over 100M FB video views and over 100M video views on YouTube. And our Shark Week Shows on Snapchat were among the top 10 shows ever. (See a sample below.)

The next year, we topped ourselves by stealing a page from the old cable tv playbook and making a show ABOUT the network’s shows, “The Daily Bite.” (Again, check it out below.)

THE BACK STORY

Let’s go back… wayyyyback to the 80s. Cable television, as Bruce Springsteen sang at the time, was “57 channels with nothing on.” Channels were built around genres: HBO was literally “Home Box Office” because it was movies. Nickelodeon – barely created — was just kids stuff. There were TWO comedy channels – HA and Comedy Central. MTV was Music. Discovery was exploration, the planet, the whole world of science and adventure.

Most people still watched the big networks. 

You had to distinguish yourself from all of the other guys for two reasons: to get people to watch your channel and to get the cable companies to pay you for each of the people who were watching your channel. 

In the spring of 1987, Discovery execs held an “offsite.” Unlike every other offsite any of us have ever attended, this one resulted in an actual game-changing idea. A young programming exec named Steve Cheskin remembered a stunt that had been used by another genius programmer, Brandon Tartikoff, when he was a station manager in Chicago. Tartikoff had boosted ratings of the afternoon movie by theming them… most famously grouping movies about big apes, which he titled “Gorilla My Dreams Week.”

Cheskin suggested “Shark Week.” All of Discovery’s shark documentaries rated a little higher than their other shows. And ever since Jaws, people had been fascinated by Sharks. By the next year, Discovery’s first Shark week was on the air. For the first time, the channel’s ratings topped over a million viewers a night. 

By the time I showed up, Shark Week was recognized as a pop culture juggernaut — but its relevance to a younger audience could best be characterized as “Hey, I used to watch that with my parents!” Not “I HAVE TO WATCH THAT NOW!” . 

Shark Week, like a diver in shark-infested waters, must always move forward. (Okay, in the interest of science, that’s not true. But hang in there with me, okay?) 

THE AUDIENCE: CELEBRATING THE TRIBE

The great thing about going digital was that it allowed the channel to truly celebrate its fans! People do everything from decorate their homes and office cubicles to dressing up their pets to tattooing Shark Week all over their bodies (watch the vide0!). These were some of the most popular videos we created during Shark week, to celebrate the Shark Week Tribe. 

We also hired Everybody At Once to have a conversation with those fans. EA1 rewarded people who engaged with us by giving them stickers, encouraging them to share, answering questions, etc.

TALKING (BACK) TO THE AUDIENCE

Discovery announced that Michael Phelps was going to race a great white shark. Immediately, the internet went all “They’re going to kill him!” The psychology of the internet being what it is, the reaction was a bouillabaise of horror and the projection of a dark subliminal wish.  

We needed to respond to the hundreds of “My god! He’ll Die” posts we saw. But we didn’t want to give away how we were actually going to produce the race. 

So we teased the technology, releasing a series of videos across all platforms that pitted Phelps against the greatest swimmers of all time… in this video, you can see him beat Michael Gross (who had earlier “beat” Mark Spitz). We used the same computer technology that we used to  “race” Phelps against a great white. 

 

INNOVATING ON NEW PLATFORMS 

We also created a really fun VR integration around Phelps. We hired a terrific artist to use VR “paint” and recreate Phelps in the water. VR has always been a big part of Shark week, immersing audiences in situations they may otherwise not be able to experience. We also shot VR in the Bahamas, Australia, and the Caribbean.

REACHING THE UNREACHABLE AUDIENCE: SNAPCHAT

The most desirable audience in the media world lives on Snap — and doesn’t exactly have traditional tv watching habits. Discovery had a deal to create a series around Shark Week, so we worked with Group Nine’s Spencer Starke and Jeffrey Wisenbaugh to create “Shark Week on Snap.”

The challenge here, of course, was to bring the excitement of sharks to a vertical format. In addition, we were a little worried that the audience would tap and swipe their way around great footage and information, so in the 2017 version, we had comic Jordan Carlos swipe and tap BEFORE the audience would be tempted. Take a look. (Sorry, I only have a rough version in my files…. you can always open Snapchat!)  

CREATING ORIGINAL CONTENT: THE DAILY BITE 

The oldest trick in the cable TV book is to market your channel with programming about your channel. It’s pretty much what 50% of the content is when you start a new network. (And if you’re launching a new brand, take note!)

Discovery had a big bet down on its Discovery GO app, so we created a show that celebrated the app and its content — particularly Shark Week content. We built a show called The Daily Bite with short segments that could then be cut and distributed on multiple platforms. It was cheap, fun, and performed quite well!

The daily 5 minute show outperformed almost everything else on the GO platform during Shark Week. We created features that were decidedly digital, while still living well within the brand values of Shark Week. 

Here’s a quick sample of how we presented the daily on-air rundown, with comedian Yamaneeka Saunders.

Lessons learned: 

  • Going in, make sure you understand brand equity, the role the brand plays in the audience’s life, and the “immovable objects” on the landscape. Honor the immovable.
  • Celebrate the tribe! If your brand has a tribe, celebrate them and make sure they see themselves on ever platform. 
  • If the brand is established, you can’t have ENOUGH buy-in from every stakeholder. That said, you also have to ask for (and get) a lot of creative latitude. The more you discuss up front, the more creative freedom you’ll have later. 
  • That said (don’t you love the way “That Said” always means: But the opposite might be true…) The people who have both feet in the old way of doing things can’t have a stranglehold on the new team.