Howard Swartz, Discovery Channel’s senior VP of production and development, talks to TV Real about Shark Week 2019’s 20-plus hour slate.
Inspired by the true story of a 1982 shark encounter in the Atlantic Ocean, Capsized: Blood in the Water is the first-ever scripted feature-length film made for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, now in its 31st year. Starring Josh Duhamel, Tyler Blackburn, Rebekah Graf, Beau Garrett and Josh Close, the movie centers on the crew of a Florida-bound yacht that capsizes in an unforeseen storm off the coast of Virginia. Stranded in the chilling waters for days, they hold out hope for an increasingly unlikely rescue while fending off a shiver of tiger sharks.
“It’s an amazing true story of survival in shark-infested waters, and it’s truly compelling,” says Swartz. “And the sharks aren’t bad. We don’t demonize the sharks because the sharks are just doing what they do.”
Not demonizing sharks—and, moreover, offering a better understanding of the apex predators of the seas—is a central aspect of what Shark Week has long been and will continue to be about. In a sense, Shark Week attempts to provide context for the primordial fear of the creatures that was no doubt stoked by Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller Jaws and its ubiquitous, ominous theme from composer John Williams.
“I think that these are just majestic, interesting animals,” says Swartz. “What we try to do, for the 30 years that we’ve been on the air with Shark Week, is to try to celebrate these animals—not the fear-mongering piece of it, but tap into people’s curiosity and tap into that interest—and show how incredible they are, how important they are to the ecosystem and just how cool they are.”
This mission to rehabilitate the shark’s image in the eyes of the public while providing a lesson on their import to the environment, year after year with fresh angles and new insights, likely wouldn’t be possible without modern technology’s ongoing evolution. Led by the “maverick” cinematographer Andy Casagrande, the camera technology used on Shark Week has improved dramatically over the years. For instance, for original programs on this year’s slate, the crew was able to take advantage of new cameras that boast a significantly greater lifespan—18 hours versus four hours—when put to the test against salty seawater while affixed to the backs of sharks sweeping through their natural habitat.
“Eighteen hours gives [the sharks] time to sort of readjust and go on to their daily lives and it gives us a real opportunity to see what their life is like,” says Swartz. “Technology has given us access to not just behavior like that, but also new locations. We can find new shark habitats. We’re able to film these animals like we’ve never been able to film them.”
This technology has enabled such Shark Week 2019 programming as Sharks of the Badlands, which follows Casagrande and shark expert Kina Scollay to New Zealand, where they test cutting-edge devices for shark-detecting surveillance to take back to Cape Cod to help improve the safety of the white-shark-infested waters. There’s also Air Jaws Strikes Back, with shark expert Chris Fallows leading a team of researchers to a shark versus seal battleground, where they capture the incredible predatory events for the first time; and Great White Kill Zone: Guadalupe, which uses three kinds of specialist cameras to record never-before-seen white shark hunting behaviors.
On the lighter side of the slate is Shark Trip: Eat. Prey. Chum. from Girls Trip producer Will Packer. Rob Riggle, returning to Shark Week after featuring in last year’s Shaq Does Shark Week alongside the NBA Hall of Famer, attempts to recruit a host of celebrity friends to swim with sharks. Riggle “wanted to take his friends on sort of the ultimate shark trip. We thought, What could possibly go wrong?” quips Swartz of the special.
The fact that such celebrities as Shaq and Riggle—and his shark trip pals Adam Devine, Damon Wayans Jr. and Joel McHale—eagerly get involved in Shark Week proves its position in the zeitgeist, and, according to Swartz, speaks to its broad cultural relevance and appeal.
“Shark Week has become such an iconic pop culture moment that I think that people want to participate in it. And not just to participate in it because it’s television, but because I think people have this absolute fascination with sharks and it’s an experience of a lifetime,” says the exec. “A lot of these folks really want to have that experience and have that opportunity to get close with these animals. And if they can use their celebrity to help bring attention to the importance of these animals, to the ecosystem and conservation methods, then I think they’re really happy to do it. And we’re really happy to have them do it.”
When Swartz, who first worked at Discovery from 2011 to 2015, returned in 2018 with Shark Week as part of his remit, he had one major goal: don’t mess it up. “I think you constantly want to challenge yourself, challenge the viewers, push the envelope in terms of finding new locations and what is the cutting-edge science that we can be a part of,” he says. “And there’s nothing wrong with having humor in Shark Week and having fun with Shark Week.”
With a mix of science, stunts, experiments and fun, Shark Week 2019 and its 20-plus hours of original content is unlikely to mess up the event that’s only grown in popularly over the course of its storied run. This year, it was faced with the challenge of finding a way to take the week up a notch on the heels of its 30th-anniversary celebrations. But Swartz, pointing to a slate that includes Shark Week’s first scripted movie, believes they’ve succeeded. “Believe it or not, it actually feels bigger than last year.”
Discovery Channel’s Shark Week kicks off on Sunday, July 28 and continues through Sunday, August 4.