Discovery’s Joseph Schneier

Shark Week, a long-running annual television event that zeroes in on the notorious apex predator, has officially kicked off another year of programming, watchable via Max and Discovery’s linear channel through July 13. Originally beginning in 1988, the Shark Week brand has carved out a permanent place in American culture and, each year, contributes to a deeper understanding of the creature’s importance to marine life and the environment at large. Joseph Schneier, senior VP of production and development at Discovery, discusses all things Shark Week with TV Real, including how it came about, what goes into programming a week’s worth of original content and what’s key to achieving holiday status as a TV event.

TV REAL: Talk to me about Shark Week as a whole. How did it come about?
SCHNEIER: This is our 36th year. Shark Week started because, in the ’80s, cable was a bit of a Wild West. My predecessors had the idea of finding a way to celebrate summer, and shark stories are the gift that keeps on giving in the news media during these months. Since Discovery is the home of science exploration, and there are a lot of stories out there about sharks attacking people, they said, Let’s do some documentaries about what sharks are really like and own that moment in the summer. I don’t know if they realized what they’d created. We see Shark Week now—it’s practically an American holiday. I love telling people I work on it. It’s the thing I get the most responses for. We try to keep that initial sharks-are-awesome flame going. They’re perfect predators, and we need to know as much about them as possible and enjoy how cool it is to see them up close safely.

TV REAL: With how long it’s been running, what’s the key to keeping the slate compelling, fresh and also familiar?
SCHNEIER: It is the strong work of our scientists and the production community. We’re all working together to make it fresh. The vast majority of Shark Week starts from science. We’re constantly tracking what’s new. If someone publishes a paper or is interviewed to talk about their work, we see that. Our Google alerts are nonstop. We make phone calls and say, Hey, you just did this study. Is it interesting? Is it visual? Is it something we can talk about? Why are you so excited about it?

That’s how we keep it fresh. We’re talking about some of the largest creatures on Earth and also some of the most understudied. By creating more attention and helping to fund the research that these scientists are doing, new breakthroughs are being made that we can cover. There’s always a new shark story to share, especially because we keep learning about them.

TV REAL: What’s the process for finding and developing all that content? A week is a lot of real estate to fill in a programming schedule.
SCHNEIER: I’ve been doing Shark Week for about 12 years. I start 18 months before Shark Week every year, meaning I’m already halfway through the slate for 2025. That doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of more opportunity. But, to be cutting edge, you need to be constantly working on it, and you have to be prepared for last-minute changes, which we are. We’re proud of the fact that many of our most popular Shark Week shows are shot six to eight weeks before the event. That’s because when something breaking happens, we’re going to cover it. It’s a full-time job.

There’s a team of people, including fellow senior VP of production and development Joe Boyle, and of course, a production committee that works with us. They’re constantly feeding us new intel. For example—you won’t believe it—sharks just showed up in Canada. That’s one of our big stories this year: The area around Nova Scotia may be one of the largest great white aggregation sites in the world. You don’t think about sharks in Canada. The Canadians certainly weren’t at first. Now, they’ve become one of our best partners in filming sharks. This is one small example of a brand-new story. It’s something we’re going to start covering over the next decade, I’m sure. It’s practically in our own backyard.

TV REAL: What was behind the choice to have John Cena host this year? More broadly, how does celebrity and name recognition help the brand?
SCHNEIER: We are fortunate that our brand has a lot of recognition. In one of his [sound] bites, John talks about how he loves to watch Shark Week from the couch with a snack. It’s cool to be a part of something that high-profile talent like John Cena is already aware of and a fan of.

Why work with someone like John Cena? We listen to our audience. He is well-liked from the age of 8 to 80. He’s the type of person that most people look up to. That’s important to us. He’s a fan of our brand; we’re a fan of his brand. It makes for the perfect kismet. Ultimately, it does grow the audience. We like to work with people that we know our audience already likes and respects.

It all further confirms that Shark Week is on the verge of a national holiday. High-profile people start talking about it, and more people tune in because of that, which is a wonderful thing.

TV REAL: What takes Shark Week to holiday status, keeping it iconic and setting its content apart from the rest in the natural history genre?
SCHNEIER: During Shark Week, the sharks are the stars. That’s not always the case with natural history. Sometimes, natural history is clearly humans, 200 yards away with a telephoto lens, filming some behavior with a long voiceover explaining what you’re looking at.

For Shark Week, sharks are always ready for their close-ups. It’s a different, more immersive way of filmmaking. It’s all credit to our filmmaking partners who have helped us pioneer these techniques. It’s a different experience when the animals are in charge. We’re going to make them the stars and live vicariously through them for a week to see what it’s like. That’s the difference between what we do and what some of the other groups are doing. It’s more lean-in than lean-back.