Nat Geo Wild is right: Sharks cannot sign exclusive contracts with a television network.
That’s a good thing, because the American TV viewing public loves sharks. Sharks are really cool. They swim really fast, eat things and occasionally launch themselves out of the water to snag a seal. Like this:
Nom nom nom.
For nearly three decades, Silver Spring-based Discovery has dominated the world of sharks with its annual Shark Week, bringing in millions of viewers and scaring just as many beachgoers.
But Nat Geo Wild, a joint venture between D.C.-based National Geographic and Fox, has leapt into shark-infested waters with SharkFest, its own week-long predatory extravaganza.
This week marks the start of both shark events, and Nat Geo Wild, which reaches about half of U.S. households, definitely wants you to get the two confused -- according to all of its marketing material -- in hopes of stealing some viewers from Discovery.
"We want you to confuse the two. And you will. And we don't care because it gets us ratings," says the bearded narrator of Nat Geo Wild's ad for SharkFest (which you need to watch) while Battle Hymn of the Republic plays in the background. "We've done it for years and we're gonna continue to do it."
"People are just looking for quality content," said Geoff Daniels, Nat Geo Wild's executive vice president and general manager. "This is us saying, 'There’s a lot of content choices out there.' I think that’s what gets us to stand out in a sea of fairly generic choices."
Sharks have been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. As of the Fourth of July weekend, there have been eight reported shark attacks this summer in waters off North Carolina.
But part of the fear they induce means they make extraordinary television.
"Sharks are really compelling characters and at the end of the day, that’s what we look for in TV," said Howard Swartz, Discovery's vice president for documentaries and special programs.
Discovery is also rolling out a "Shweekend" (shark weekend) later this summer for the first time.
Nat Geo Wild, whose U.S. channel is only five years old, wants a piece of that whale carcass (which is a favorite snack of sharks), too. The viewership numbers are just that good. This will only be the third year of SharkFest and it's seen 20 to 30 percent viewership growth every year, according to a Nat Geo Wild spokesperson. The company declined to release detailed viewership numbers.
"No one can really own sharks," said Daniels. Following that logic, it was a pretty simple decision for Nat Geo executives to jump into shark-infested waters and compete with Discovery.
Discovery has drawn flak from shark lovers in recent years because of the fictional nature of some Shark Week shows. Especially infamous examples include "Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives," the most-watched program in Shark Week history, proposing the idea that a giant shark species, megalodon ("the serial killer of the seas"), extinct for more than 1 million years, still swims the seas; and "Voodoo Shark," about a bull shark from a fisherman's tale named Rooken that, again, does not exist.
This year, the network pulled all fictional content. No more mockumentaries, or gratuitous reconstructions of gory attacks.
Still, last year, Shark Week drew 2.48 million average viewers in prime time. That helped turn Discovery into the top network in all of television for men ages 18 to 49 in 2013 and 2014, according to Nielsen media research data.
But Nat Geo Wild's new programming (and the shot-across-the-bow advertisements) have launched a feud between the two networks, whose headquarters are only six miles apart.
"You know what's fun? A festival. You know what's boring? A week," Nat Geo's ad proclaims.
Daniels said SharkFest can "undo the bad rap" sharks have been given by Discovery's over-the-top programming. Instead, shark fans can watch "Shark Alley," where they follow sardines as they swim for their lives up the southeastern coast of Africa, or "The United Sharks of America," for the truth behind several U.S. shark attacks.
"We’re not afraid to call things the way we see them," he said, "but we’re not afraid to be funny and be entertaining."
Discovery, the shark programming industry's older brother, has been slow to strike back at Nat Geo Wild.
"Discovery has been doing Shark Week for 28 years and we’ve found ways to keep it new and fresh for 28 years," Swartz said. "I think we are the gold standard when it comes to that kind of programming."
It's also famous for sticking inflatable fins on the sides of its Silver Spring headquarters.
The company's softball team in the Metropolitan Media Softball League (of which this reporter is a member on The Post's team) goes by the mascot "sharks."
"Shark Week is our Super Bowl," Swartz said. "I think people look forward to it every single year. I know we do."
And according to the ratings, so does everyone else.