The oral history of the 'Shark in the Water' promo that saved 'Degrassi' and changed TV forever
On TeenNick, the summer of 2010 was the summer of "
After airing a marathon of every episode, the network released a music-video-style promo to announce the next era of the long-running Canadian series.
VV Brown's "
Fans ate it up, and the song was probably stuck in every teen's head for the whole summer.
Before some of them sat down for the show's 20th-reunion panel at the ATX Festival in June, Insider spoke with showrunners Stephen Stohn and Linda Schuyler, actors Annie Clark and Luke Bilyk, director Randall "RT" Thorne, and singer VV Brown about what it was like creating the momentous piece of "Degrassi" history that ended up saving the series.
By 2010, the "Degrassi" franchise had been on the air for 30 years. Schuyler and Kit Hood created "The Kids of Degrassi Street" in 1979, and throughout the '80s and '90s, it gained widespread recognition with "Degrassi Junior High" and "Degrassi High."
In 2001, Schuyler teamed up with Stohn to reboot the series with "Degrassi: The Next Generation," which successfully aired on Canada's CTV network for nine seasons.
But before season 10, the showrunners had an unexpected and confusing meeting with network executives, who'd decided they weren't going to carry on with "Degrassi."
"Like, they love us, but they don't want us," Schuyler recalled.
At that point, Stohn had already been in talks with US network TeenNick about creating 48 episodes of a telenovela-style teen show. Instead of a new series, he pitched season 10 of "Degrassi: The Next Generation," which was later rebranded as simply "Degrassi."
As part of TeenNick's scheduling initiative for the summer of 2010, the network committed to experimenting with airing a new episode of "Degrassi" four nights a week for the first 20 or so episodes of season 10.
How are we going to find the money? Oh my God, where are we going to find the story?Linda Schuyler
Stohn presented the idea to Schuyler after the CTV meeting, and the fate of season 10 shifted.
"So within the space of two or three hours I had gone from like 0 to 48" episodes, Schuyler said. "That's great. How are we going to find the money? Oh my God, where are we going to find the story?"
"No one other than Linda and I knew that," Stohn told Insider, speaking of the cancellation on CTV.
Bilyk, who played Drew Torres starting season 10, said he had no idea "Degrassi" almost ended until he was on a press tour for season 11 or 12.
"That was when one of the execs at Nickelodeon, we were talking and they were, like, 'We're so happy we decided to pick the show back up.' And I was, like, 'Wait, you mean it was fully canceled?'"
"I couldn't imagine them trying to cancel it now, looking back with what we did and what we put together with seasons 10 to 15," he added. "I could never imagine not being part of that."
"Linda and I went around to all of the various departments, whether it was sound or makeup or whatever, and we said to them, 'You know there's a saying that you could have something fast or you could have it less expensive or you could have it high quality — pick any two,'" Stohn told Insider.
"And we went around and we said, 'That's what we're doing here, except you have to do all three. It has to be faster, it has to be better, and it has to be less expensive.'"
Although they were cutting costs elsewhere, the story team actually needed a bigger budget than ever before to create plotlines for a 44-episode season (the final four episodes TeenNick ordered carried over to season 11).
"We doubled our story team. So we actually had two writers' rooms going," Schuyler said. "So simultaneously we were breaking four episodes, two in one room, two in another room ... We were churning a lot of story, but we were doing it in half the time."
While the production team prepared for the biggest season of "Degrassi" yet, TeenNick figured out how to promote it.
Clark, who played Fiona Coyne, said the network helped the Canadian staple cement a spot in US pop culture.
"TeenNick always promoted 'Degrassi' really heavily ... It really felt like almost an American show when you were with TeenNick," she told Insider.
When the network approached the creators with the idea for "Shark in the Water," Stohn and Schuyler thought it was "marvelous."
"We opened our schedule so that we could make the cast available," Schuyler said. "They came up into town, they hired a separate crew to shoot it, and in two days they came up with this brilliant concept."
Thorne was hired to direct the promo and Brown's song was chosen after her record label at the time, Capitol Records, got in touch with TeenNick.
The pieces fell into place, and they set out to film two music videos: A "Degrassi: Featuring VV Brown" version for TeenNick and a "VV Brown: Featuring the cast of Degrassi" version for the singer's repertoire.
The network settled on a carnival-circus theme, which ended up being pretty perfect for the content of the show.
"Everyone always talks about Degrassi being this school where everything goes wrong. Like any problem you can imagine, these characters are facing it, so to equate that to a circus is such a perfect correlation," Clark said. "I feel like it just fit so perfectly to describe all these people's different problems."
Brown agreed: "Circuses kind of are a beautiful chaos, an entertaining sort of madness and folly, and I think that's kind of representative."
The song choice itself added to the eerie, ambiguous nature of the video. The singer explained that "Shark in the Water" is about "being aware of things, or people, or company that are not good for you and questioning them, questioning your instincts, questioning their behavior and their intentions."
Using a song that suggested someone shouldn't be trusted also created suspense leading up to the two-part finale of the first half of season 10, dubbed "Degrassi: The Boiling Point," where the school's Vegas Night dance gets put on lockdown.
The promo ends on a spinning roulette wheel that appears to be stopping on a "lockdown" option in between "betrayal" and "lies."
Shooting the promo was anything but an average day of work for the cast. Much of "Degrassi" took place at the school, so any deviation from that was exciting.
"It felt like the sets were crazy and there were so many people, and I think we had people from TeenNick fly in, so it just felt like we were doing something really special," Clark said. "You get kind of used to, like, 'Oh yeah, we walk and talk to the lockers.' But then when they shoot some big event, it was very exciting."
"Shooting a promo like that, it was a heightened reality for what we normally do," Schuyler added.
It just felt very like, 'Oh, this is what they do in, like, Hollywood.'Annie Clark
Clark also said that the promo shoot was bigger than anything they'd done before.
"It just felt so big budget," the actress told Insider. "Like it seems weird to say, and obviously 'Degrassi' the show had a good budget, but it just felt very like, 'Oh, this is what they do in, like, Hollywood.'"
"This was definitely a whole different level of production, and that totally went for hair and makeup as well," Clark added. "I remember actually my outfit took forever to get into it because it was like a corset, so there were a lot of different pieces to it. It was not comfortable but it looked really cool on camera." She remembered wearing "pounds of makeup" that made her face "more caricature-like."
As a newcomer, Bilyk said he was especially thankful for all these exciting deviations from his regular shooting schedule because it helped him build relationships with the cast. "We felt like we didn't have to be so in character or so professional, people were kind of joking around and everyone was having fun."
Brown, who said she shot the scenes for her music video alongside the cast, added that the energy on set was positive and memorable. "Everybody was just so friendly and so nice," the singer said. "It was good fun and I'm really grateful for it."
But there was one major downside of working on the promo set.
"The hallmark of any kind of fair or carnival is that it's outside so that you can see the ground, and the ground in the studio is concrete," Thorne said. He went on to explain that the studio floor was covered in dirt and peat moss, which gave the set the look it needed.
"It got all in the air, and it was, like, actually really hard to breathe," Clark said.
"I'll never forget, this is probably really gross ... at the end of day one, me, Melinda Shankar, I think Alicia Josipovic, AJ Saudin, and Jessica Tyler, we were all in the room afterward and were getting changed and were, like, 'Oh, let's go out and get food.' And we all looked at each other and we all had this like black powder all over our face," Bilyk said.
Clark said she and her castmates found the residue gross and she was "coughing up black" after the shoot.
"I just felt like I had a layer of like soot on me after work, but honestly, a small price to pay for how fun that was."
Some previous "Degrassi" promos used series footage to tease the next plots, but "Shark in the Water" took a subtler approach.
When TeenNick developed the script for the promo, the network had access to the plotlines for season 10 and worked alongside producer Stephanie Cohen and Thorne to come up with hints to embed into the video.
"They had a rundown of some of the storyline concepts that they were going to explore in the season coming up," Thorne told Insider. "I kind of threw some concepts of carnival ideas at them so, like, a strongman competition or a dunking booth or something. So we kind of pitched back and forth in terms of what those scenarios would represent related to the season afterward."
There were only a handful of exceptions to this rule, such as when the creators pulled Drake aside beforehand to tell him his character was going to get shot and live, or when they had to explain to Jordan Todosey that she'd be playing a transgender teen boy.
The secretive nature of the scripts made the hints in the promo even more fun for the cast to analyze on set.
In Clark's scene, she covers up a black eye with makeup, which hinted at her first storyline of season 10 where she ends up in an abusive relationship.
"I was, like, 'Oh, OK, I'm going to have a black eye, what's this gonna mean?'" the actress said. "Because I remember with a lot of people we didn't know."
Bilyk wasn't totally sure what the promo meant for his character either, especially the scene where he kisses Melinda Shankar, who played Alli Bhandari.
"I remember reading the script for the 'Shark in the Water' promo, and I'm, like, 'Why am I here with you? Why are we kissing?' So then we were, like, maybe we'll end up dating," he said. "We only knew probably about, I think half, half of what was going on."
I was, like, 'Bro, I know you don't die — you signed a four-year contract.'Luke Bilyk
The actor also said the cast had fun theorizing about what the clues meant for other characters, especially newcomer Eli (Munro Chambers), who's presented with a death tarot card in his scene.
"Eli pulling that tarot card with death, all of us were, like, 'Yo, are you about to get like fired?'" Bilyk said. "But at that time, me, Munro, and Jordan Todosey had all signed four-year contracts ... so I was, like, 'Bro, I know you don't die — you signed a four-year contract.'"
Of all the clues in the promo, Eli's was also the one that was most highly dissected by fans.
Despite that the card is usually interpreted as an ending or big change rather than actual death, fan theories at the time ranged from thinking this mysterious new character was either going to die on his very first season or cause the death of another character.
"It was such a cool way to hint to what's going to happen in the season and get fans to try and solve the riddles," Clark said. "Like, 'Oh, I think it could be this,' 'I think it could be this,' rather than just showing clips from the season."
"Online there was so much speculation from our audience of, 'What does this mean?' 'Who's going to get together?'" Schuyler said.
The success of the "Shark in the Water" promo brought an unprecedented level of attention to the series and its cast.
"I remember the biggest thing at the time — because that was 2010 — was we got on the front page of Perez Hilton. I remember someone messaging me being like 'Oh, my God, you're on Perez Hilton,' and I was, like, 'I made it,'" Clark said.
"Like that was the biggest thing. I read Perez Hilton all the time, and I just couldn't believe that a huge, Hollywood publication would be writing about 'Degrassi' because I was still so like, 'Oh, this is a Toronto show.'"
For new cast members, the huge media campaign was their introduction to "Degrassi" fans. Bilyk said that the fandom welcomed him and Chambers with open arms after their characters were introduced alongside well-established ones like Alli and Clare.
"I'll never forget, we were in the basement of Munro's house having a party, and we had just made Twitter, and we were going crazy cause I just signed up and I got 10,000 followers," Bilyk said. "And I'm, like, 'Munro, you got to sign up,' and he was, like, 'No one's going to care — nobody cares about us.'"
"We signed him up and our jaws dropped — 20,000 followers in 15 seconds."
After taking a major chance by ordering so many episodes of "Degrassi" in a totally new format, TeenNick "loved" the response from fans and viewers, according to Schuyler and Stohn.
In his book, Stohn explained that the "Shark in the Water" promo and the first half of season 10 really saved the show and MuchMusic, the Canadian network it started airing on after CTV.
"When it went to MuchMusic in Canada, they were thrilled, it made their network," he told Insider. "We didn't realize it at the time, but they told us, 'Oh no, we might have had to shut down, and then you came in and saved us.'"
He added: "The ratings were great on both MuchMusic and TeenNick, enough to get us almost immediately ordered for yet another 44 episodes in season 11."
Despite the cancellation scare, seasons 10, 11, 12, and 13 each contained 40 or more episodes, and the 14th and final season had 28.
Netflix even picked it up when TeenNick decided to end the show after season 14, and "Degrassi: Next Class" ran for four 10-episode seasons on the streaming platform.
For Thorne's career, directing the promo led to him working on full episodes of "Degrassi" on season 14 and "Next Class."
"I think this was kind of like my audition for 'Degrassi,'" the director told Insider. "Even though I had been doing music videos for a decade before ... In terms of me directing things on the show, I think that this put me over the top."
But the promo didn't just save and boost the "Degrassi" franchise. Brown wrote and released "Shark in the Water" years before it premiered, but the song's popularity skyrocketed in the summer of 2010.
It's the cornerstone of my career, and it is the reason I can feed my children.VV Brown
"It really put the song on the map," Brown told Insider. "It went from having mediocre sales to going on to sell over a million records simply because of 'Degrassi.'"
"It's the cornerstone of my career, and it is the reason I can feed my children," she said.
It remains the singer's most-played song on Spotify, with 27 million streams to date, and she said she still receives over 50 messages a week from "Degrassi" fans.
"'Shark in the Water' wasn't doing badly, but it was a record that was hanging in there but could have easily faded away ... this immediately changed it."
Seasons 11 and 12 of "Degrassi" were also introduced with video promos, but nothing like "Shark in the Water."
Despite that both season 11's "Now or Never" promo and season 12's "Showdown" promo introduced new characters, included catchy music, and hinted at the next storylines, they didn't make nearly as much of an impression.
"'Shark in the Water' was a very expensive way to go, and it worked like gangbusters," Stohn said. "But not every promo can be a 'Shark in the Water.'"
"We did the other promos, but they just didn't have that air of like fun and like curiosity in the air that made us all fall in love with each other," Bilyk said. "I still have people talk to me about it, to be honest. I love that 'Shark in the Water' promo. It did its job very well."
There was no other time like that in 'Degrassi' history.Annie Clark
Although the show ran from 2001 to 2014, the summer of 2010, with the "Shark in the Water" promo and nightly "Boiling Point" episodes, stands out. Clark said it marked when "the show shifted to a new sort of vibe" — a new era for the series.
Early stars got to act alongside Aubrey Graham, who went on to become rap sensation Drake. Actors on season eight ushered in the series' first TV movie, "Degrassi Goes Hollywood," featuring a number of famous cameos (Dan Levy, Perez Hilton, Pete Wentz).
But when it comes to season 10, she said, "There was no other time like that in 'Degrassi' history."
- Towards a Greener Footprint: Prioritising Carbon-Neutrality Makes Good Businesses Sense! Are Indian Firms Making the Transition?
- Netflix confirms an ad supported tier is coming to its streaming service by year end
- Accenture, Cognizant could see revenue growth but a strong US dollar could spoil the party
- Kharif sowing is off to a weak start with extended dry spells and floods
- Best ladder for home use in India