Cable's Battle for Shark Supremacy

The much-loved and much-mocked Discovery TV event is being challenged by Nat Geo Wild—for viewers, for branding, and for sovereignty of the deep.

The cold, dead eye of "Chompie," a 446-foot-long inflated shark that festooned the exterior of the Discovery Channel building in Silver Spring, Maryland, in August 2012 (Glyn Lowe / Flickr)

Infinite Jest features, among many other things, a world organized by what David Foster Wallace described as Subsidized Time: years that are sponsored, like stadiums and podcasts and certain exceptional humans, by commercial brands. One of these spans is the Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster; another is the Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken; yet another, the focus of the novel, is the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. Which is all, like so much else in Wallace’s work, disconcerting in its familiarity: The world of 2015 may not (yet) have found ways to sell time itself in annual increments, but it has given rise to weird micro-holidays—celebrating everything from pancake-eating to lawyer-hugging—that have come about through both commercial impulse and cultural fiat. (Happy National Chocolate With Almonds Day, you guys! May your candy brim, this year and every year, with healthy fats.)

And now we find ourselves midway through television’s most biting manifestation of Wallace’s Subsidized Time: Shark Week. The seven-day stretch when we, the basic-cable-watching public, come together to gawk at/laugh at/wonder at/be terrified by Great Whites and hammerheads and megalodons. The appeal of Shark Week is obvious. The festival—Stephen Colbert once compared it to a high holiday, which was probably more accurate than we’d care to admit—is cultural rather than religious, and therefore less divisive than your Christmases or your Easters or your Earth Days; it is also fanciful and educational and winking in its irony. It has featured a show called Ultimate Air Jaws, which is exactly what it sounds like, which means that it’s awesome to pretty much anyone who isn’t a harbor seal.

Shark Week, in other words, is an extended national holiday, and a beloved one. There is, at this point, a Shark Week drinking game. There is a “Fuck Yeah Shark Week” Tumblr (“a blog devoted to the awesomeness that is shark week, an annual, week-long series of shows about sharks on Discovery Channel”). Fans have nicknamed the event “the Super Bowl of the ocean.” For several years, the Discovery Channel building in Silver Spring, Maryland, has outfitted itself with an enormous inflatable shark to mark the return of the festival. (The shark’s name? “Chompie.”) Shark Week’s offerings—shows that have, in combination, made the 28-year-old fish-fest the longest-running cable event in U.S. history—include such docudramas as Voodoo Shark, The Shark Takes a Siesta, Shark Shooter, Shark After Dark LIVE, and I Escaped Jaws (parts I and II). The Discovery Channel has yet to offer Raiders of the Lost Shark or Zero Shark Thirty as part of the proceedings, but it has aired a show called Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine, so you have to figure that the explicit Hollywood tie-ins are, at this point, only a matter of time.

Given all that, it’s unsurprising that Shark Week has come in, recently, for the sincerest form of flattery: It has spawned imitators. Lots of them. For the past few years, Nat Geo Wild has been simultaneously airing its own version of Shark Week festivities in the form of “SharkFest”—an attempt to capture some of the massive viewership that Shark Week has long enjoyed. (Last year, during its run in mid-August, Shark Week drew more than 42 million viewers, Discovery claims.) The attempt has been successful: The programming for SharkFest, a spokesperson told The Washington Post, has seen a 20 to 30 percent growth in viewership every year since its inception.

This year, though, the cheeky knockoff has grown even more teeth: Nat Geo began blatantly advertising itself as an alternative to Shark Week. “We want you to confuse the two,” the narrator in one spot admits. “And you will. And we don’t care because it gets us ratings.” (He announces this, by the way, as the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays in the background.) He adds: “We’ve done it for years, and we’re gonna continue to do it.”

Nat Geo has a point with all this shark-baiting—and not just because individual cable channels tend to blur together in viewers’ minds, particularly when those minds are addled by promises of Sharkzilla in Action. Shark Week, the ur-SharkFest, has recently come in for controversy, most notably in its eager appropriation of science both pseudo- and just plain bad. In a particularly egregious example, in 2013, Discovery aired the “documentary” Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, which featured a search for a shark that has been extinct for millions of years. The network, pretty much ignoring the outcries against the show, came back the next year with  Megalodon: The New Evidence, which presented no evidence, new or otherwise, for the current existence of the long-dead creature. In another incident, reported by NPR earlier this week, the marine biologist Jonathan Davis found his quotes—about a “legendary shark of the bayous called the Rooken”—taken out of context for Voodoo Shark. (Davis was also, he says, asked by a producer to let himself be bitten by a shark—because “that would be so exciting.”)

While “this year we’re focusing quite a bit on research and science, more so probably than we have in the past,” Howard Swartz, Discovery’s head of development and production, told NPR, the Shark Week brand, such as it is, has taken a hit from all the backlash. In addition to the questionable science, the event has also been criticized for encouraging unnecessary fear about sharks—when in fact, as the cliche goes, they have much more reason to be scared of us than we do to be scared of them. (Shark populations, marine scientists point out, are on the decline around the world, in large part because of humans.)

SharkFest, shrewdly, is marketing itself as the true shark-lovers’ Shark Week—a (slightly) more science-y alternative to Shark Week’s fishy programming. The event, says Geoff Daniels, Nat Geo Wild’s executive vice president and general manager, hopes to “undo the bad rap sharks have been given by Discovery’s over-the-top programming.” SharkFest programming, as a result, includes such relatively calm fare as “Shark Alley,” which follows sardines as they shark-dodge along the southeastern coast of Africa, and “The United Sharks of America,” which puts shark attacks into historical—and not hysterical—perspective.

Which is also to say that SharkFest is premised on the idea that Infinite Jest had its limits: Time, the event suggests, can’t fully be bought or branded—and neither can a species. There can be many Shark Weeks. Just as there can be follow-ups to that event in the form of the “Shweekend” (“shark weekend”)—an actual thing that the Discovery Channel is rolling out, for the first time, later this summer—and, elsewhere in the cable box, in the form of seemingly endless Sharknado movies on SyFy. (The third installment of the franchise, the revealingly named Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No, is set to air on that channel later this month.) As the narrator in Nat Geo Wild’s SharkFest ad sums it up: “You know what's fun? A festival. You know what's boring? A week.”