How Nat Geo’s giant SharkFest play at Comic-Con tried to overpower Discovery’s Shark Week

Nat Geo's Sharkfest at 2019 Comic-Con International
Nat Geo’s Sharkfest shark not-so-stealthily moves through the streets around San Diego Comic-Con International.
(Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images)

What made the Nat Geo Nerd Nite different from so many other Comic-Con events?

In a word, science. Its curated scientific presentations -- open to the public, not just Comic-Con badge holders -- added a bit of education to the fun.

“We wanted our guests to get cerebral,” said Chris Albert, executive vice president, global communications, talent relations and events, who was eager to talk about National Geographic’s rebooted series “Brain Games,” which premieres this December with new host Keegan-Michael Key and high-profile guest stars including Tiffany Haddish, Kristen Bell, Tom Hanks, Kevin Hart and Jordan Peele.

And what about that massive shark making its way through the crowd?

“What better way to celebrate ... than unleashing a life-size [shark] replica to swim the streets of Comic-Con?” Albert said.

Call it a sharp-toothed answer to Discovery’s Sharkzilla, the giant shark mascot that has become a Comic-Con regular in promoting the network’s long-running Shark Week. Nat Geo’s response was a man-made shark created in honor of the 20-foot-long great white called Deep Blue -- “the most famous shark in the world,” Albert said -- captured on camera near Hawaii and seen on the Nat Geo Wild series “World’s Biggest Great White?,” which was simulcast on National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild.

Not only did the Nat Geo shark spend quality time swimming through the crowds clogging the streets of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, it was one of the star guests at National Geographic and Nerd Nite’s fifth annual Comic-Con party -- a throw-down of sorts in the growing rivalry between Shark Week and SharkFest. Last year, National Geographic expanded its SharkFest to two weeks. And this year, it’s growing to three weeks -- one week, just concluded, on the National Geographic channel, and two more weeks on Nat Geo Wild through Aug. 2.

“This year’s SharkFest is our biggest yet, spanning three weeks and two networks,” Albert said. “It is a frenzy of shark programming, including our super-sized special, ‘World’s Biggest Great White?’”

“During Comic-Con, the options are endless -- there are multiple parties at night, and we want to make sure we are able to break through the noise,” Albert added. That’s why we strive to offer attendees something that they can’t get at any other party -- where else would have a 20-foot shark roaming the party?! Or a mentalist playing mind tricks?!”

Nat Geo also announced last week that it would make its first appearance at D23 Expo in Anaheim next month -- the annual Disney fan event that has become a growing competitor with Comic-Con. Among the expected guests are Alex Honnold, whose climb up Yosemite’s El Capitan was captured for the network’s Academy Award-winning documentary “Free Solo.”

Unlike many other more exclusive Comic-Con events, the Nat Geo party at Hotel Solamar was open to the public. “We love having the SDCC community attend our party and experience what National Geographic is all about,” Albert said. “We hope they leave feeling inspired to explore the world around them, feed their curiosity, and we also hope they learn a thing or two throughout the night from our amazing speakers.”

Besides Marvel’s “Phase 4” slate, this year’s Comic-Con was defined by a dearth of major studio movies. The question is, did anyone care?

At this year’s party were Cara Santa Maria, field host for Nat Geo’s “Brain Games”; Eric Leonardis, an expert on human-robot interaction; imagination illusionist Eric Leclerc, along with the divers who filmed Deep Blue in “World’s Biggest Great White?,” Kimberly Jeffries, marine photographer and conservationist, and Mark Mohler, deep-sea diver.

“It was inspiring to see everyone stop and watch in awe,” said Mohler. “People wanted to hear more, see more and know more. To be able to showcase what we’ve done in front of such a diverse crowd at such a prominent event such as Comic-Con’s 50th anniversary validates all the selfless time and effort we’ve committed to capture Deep Blue and all the other wildlife we’ve encountered. In an effort to educate and document these majestic animals in their natural element we’ve been able to work with Nat Geo to bring these experiences into the homes of families across the world.”

By making its viewers feel seen, NBC’s diverse, thoughtful sitcom about life working for a big-box store has developed one of TV’s most engaged fanbases.