It’s an annual summer programming stunt that’s morphed into a cultural phenomenon. It’s been on air for 24 years- and people still.go.crazy.over.shark.week. After 24 years of just sharks, you’d think people would start to get a little bored, but nope- most still love Shark Week as much as ever.
So what’s the deal? Why has Shark Week been so successful with viewers?
1. The Fascination Factor- why do people tune in for shows like The Jersey Shore, Toddlers & Tiaras, Deadliest Catch, and Sister Wives? I’d argue it’s for the fascination factor- we’re enthralled at how these people live because (for the majority of us) it’s a far cry from how we live our lives. We can observe, at TV’s length, these peoples’ lives without changing a thing about our own. And Shark Week definitely fits the bill for Fascination Factor. I don’t know many people who would actually go swimming with sharks, (actually go swimming, not just talk the big talk they’d jump in) but we’re enthralled by the people who are actually willing to dive into a shark pit. It’s experience by association- and we can’t take our eyes away from it. Need proof? Look at the ratings.
2. Timing- If Shark Week has been on air for 24 years, that puts the start date back in 1987. According to Nielsen, the average TV Household received 18.8 channels in 1985, 11.0 of which were broadcast stations. In 1990, the total was 33.2 channels, 11.7 of which were broadcast stations.
Assuming an even growth rate of channels, (for simplicity’s sake only!) there would have been 24.56 channels in 1987, 11.14 of which were broadcast stations.
Why make the distinction between total channels and broadcast stations? Shark Week premiered in the Summer of 1987, a time when the broadcast stations were ‘off season.’ Unlike today, there weren’t summertime premieres on the broadcast stations, making the number of channels people actually tuned to that summer probably much lower than the than the 24.56 total.
With a max of 24.56 channels available, the opportunity for a viewer to find Shark Week in 1987 was much higher than it would be today–the TV landscape was significantly less cluttered than it is today.
Another advantage to a 1987 launch? In 1995, when Shark Week was already celebrating its 8th year, the average TV Household received 41.1 total channels- the TV market in 1995 was already incredibly more cluttered than it had been in 1987.
Shark Week had an early mover’s advantage for viewers-Shark Week had time to build loyalty with viewers before the TV market became more cluttered. The folks at Discovery also cleverly premiered the show during the summer, a season that had been historically ‘dead’ time for the big broadcast stations- the stations that commanded the largest share of audience.
With no new broadcast shows to watch, few summertime options, and a few years to build loyalty before the TV market got cluttered, Shark Week’s timing couldn’t have been much better.
3. Willingness to evolve- Shark Week continues to attract viewers after 24 years because the program keeps evolving to stay fresh for viewers. From adding hosts, or as Discovery calls them, Chief Shark Officers, for the week (way to go with Andy Samberg!) to creating a live co-viewing experience for this year’s week, Shark Week isn’t just the same ‘ol shark footage. It’s still fresh for viewers- combine this with the built up loyalty from viewers from 24 years on air and the buzz and chatter from pop culture, and you’ve still got a hit.
While these factors may not be universally true, they’re pretty simple concepts, easily applicable to advertising campaigns- I think you’ve got to think of why someone would be interested, when they’re most likely to be paying attention, and how to keep them engaged for a campaign (or show!) to be successful.
Happy Shark Week. Fins up for another 24 years…
Channels receivable source: Nielsen.