WashPost Wonkblog Charts The Blackfish Effect

Sure, sure. Correlation is not causation. But it’s still worth looking at and considering the correlation, so thanks Wonkblog.

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Here’s Wonkblog’s setup:

Jim Atchison, the chief executive of SeaWorld Entertainment, which operates SeaWorld theme parks, resigned Friday morning. Atchison’s departure comes on the heels of what has been a terrible year for the company. In the first nine months of 2014, SeaWorld’s revenue fell by more than seven percent, and its attendance dropped by nearly five percent.

The changing of the guard is likely the result of something that occurred in July 2013: namely, the release of the documentary “Blackfish.”

“Blackfish” was met with both critical praise and public uproar. The documentary depicted cruel treatment of the orca (or killer) whales that SeaWorld holds in captivity and features among its biggest attractions. It was seen widely. And the response has been paralyzing (even despite an effort to discredit the documentary).

Personally, I think that there is more going on with SeaWorld’s drop in attendance and share price crash than Blackfish (though I do think Blackfish and the investor lawsuits at least partly account for it). Consider, also, that SeaWorld has basically been offering the same show for 50 years, and today it is even less thrilling since trainers are no longer leaping off orcas. Throw in a general public sensibility that increasingly questions the exploitation of animals for entertainment (at circuses and zoos, as well as at marine parks), and you can see why Shamu might not have the same drawing power as Harry Potter World.

So, does Atchison’s departure signal that SeaWorld might be ready to make big changes? I did an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered today, to discuss Atchison’s ouster. I said I suspected the most likely change is that SeaWorld will over time start to move its killer whale entertainment business abroad to more willing audiences in Russia, Asia and the Middle East. But one thing I should have mentioned to Greg Allen, the reporter, is that the only certain signal that SeaWorld plans to reinvent itself and evolve away from killer whale entertainment as the core of its business and brand would be a cessation of killer whale breeding. No breeding means that eventually there will be no captive killer whales. Anything else is just spin aimed at somehow perpetuating the Shamu Show, whether here in the US or abroad.

Can SeaWorld Be Saved (cont.)?

A strong argument in the Orlando Sentinel, from Scott Maxwell, that SeaWorld in fact can’t be saved, unless it comes to grips with the fact that its killer whale shows can no longer be its primary attraction.

Money graphs:

SeaWorld’s problem is that its biggest asset and biggest liability are the same thing — whales.

It needs to evolve and expand.

See, one of the main reasons that Disney and Universal continue to thrive is that they continue to evolve.

Ten years ago, Universal was all about superheroes and roller coasters. Today, it is Harry Potter and high-tech simulators.

Disney has grown and adapted as well. It started with fairy tales and an iconic castle. But Disney then reached out to older adults with Epcot, movie lovers with MGM Studios and animal lovers with Animal Kingdom.

Today — four decades after Disney’s first Orlando park opened — Disney is preparing to cash in on the worldwide phenomenon of a movie that didn’t even exist until last year: “Frozen.”

Meanwhile, SeaWorld’s main theme and attraction is the same as it was when the park opened 41 years ago: killer whales.

And the park is doubling down on that. It’s biggest spending plans involve hundreds of millions of dollars to expand and improve the whale habitats.

Other than that, the park has second-tier additions on the horizons — like a revamped Clyde and Seamore sea lion show, which the company described last week as “a hilarious tale, filled with amazing animal behaviors and splashy audience fun.”

Think about that. Universal has a new Harry Potter attraction that’s garnering worldwide attention. SeaWorld has a paid blogger, a bigger whale pool and a revamped sea lion show.

If Disney needs more than Mickey, SeaWorld has to understand that it needs more than Shamu.

Read the whole thing, and see who you think makes more sense: Atchison in Businessweek? Or Maxwell?

Can SeaWorld Be Saved?

Last week, Karl Taro Greenfeld managed an unusual feat: he was allowed inside SeaWorld’s corporate offices to interview SeaWorld’s leadership and report a Businessweek story called “Saving SeaWorld,” about SeaWorld’s efforts to survive and bounce back from the surprisingly powerful and accelerating #BlackfishEffect (seriously, I think it is fair to say that no one involved with the production fully anticipated the impact that resulted).

Since this is the first real access SeaWorld has given a big-time news organization since Blackfish started cratering SeaWorld’s image, its corporate relationships, and its stock price, it is worth taking a close look at what Greenfeld reported.

First up, Greenfeld gets SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison to comment on SeaWorld’s PR strategy:

“There is no recipe to follow. There’s very little intuitive about it,” says Atchison. “Do I wish we would have taken a more aggressive action earlier? On an emotional level I do, because I was offended by it personally. … One of the things we had to measure early on was, how do we engage in it? We don’t want to aid the marketing of the film by engaging too openly, too aggressively, too early. We didn’t want to turn it into the film SeaWorld doesn’t want you to see. And the film didn’t really gain any kind of notable momentum until CNN started airing it. Repeatedly.”

I have to admit that I am sympathetic to SeaWorld on this point. SeaWorld had a long history of keeping its head down when bad things happen at its parks, and the bad news always blew away over time and allowed SeaWorld to get back to business. It is completely understandable that SeaWorld did not want to make a big deal out of Blackfish before Blackfish was, indeed, a big deal. Why help the public take notice of a film that will harm your business?

And Atchison is correct, I think, that the CNN airings are what blew Blackfish up into a public phenomenon (an important lesson to all film-makers who want their work to have impact). Following Sundance, and through the film’s theatrical run, there was just not that much public awareness about Blackfish. I have never been in the loop on the theatrical numbers, but I don’t think Blackfish was packing the movie houses. It wasn’t until Blackfish hit cable television, on CNN in late October (along with a pretty good CNN-designed social media plan) that lots and lots of people saw Blackfish and started telling others about it.

Continue reading “Can SeaWorld Be Saved?”

Better PR Will Not Solve SeaWorld’s Problems

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SeaWorld already doubled down on its killer whale captivity model by pledging to invest tens of millions of dollars in bigger tanks. And now it is doubling down on the idea that better PR can defuse growing doubts about using killer whales for entertainment:

SeaWorld is working aggressively on improving its image as it continues to fend off criticism over its whales in captivity.

The company is disputing animal-rights activists online, soliciting fan support and trying to call more attention to its work with animals — such as rescuing underweight orphan manatees.

SeaWorld is making these efforts amid declining attendance and lingering controversy intensified by last year’s anti-captivity “Blackfish” documentary. The company said in an earnings report last week that negative publicity contributed to an overall third-quarter attendance decline.

“I think we’ve just realized we have to do a better job of telling our story, sharing the good work we do,” company spokeswoman Aimee Jeansonne Becka said, reiterating the thoughts expressed by Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison earlier this year.

“You’re going to see a PR offensive coming here,” Wells Fargo analyst Tim Conder told CNBC last week. “You’re going to see SeaWorld being more open about who they are, educating people [about] who they are, with other organizations.”

Best of luck. Sometimes the apparent problem is an actual problem, and not just a failure to “tell your story.” SeaWorld, in fact, has done a brilliant job over the past 50 years of telling exactly the story it wants to tell. That’s why many viewers found the story told in Blackfish–which was VERY different–so shocking.

Changing the story to emphasize conservation (especially if it is backed up by real investments in conservation, which would be a nice) might help at the margins. But promoting conservation still does not address the fundamental reality that increasing numbers of people find killer whale circus shows anachronistic and cruel. The only way to address that problem is to change the business model and start transitioning away from the product that fewer and fewer people want to buy.

Despite the brutal beating SeaWorld is taking in the markets, and the steady decline in paying customers, it doesn’t look like SeaWorld is quite there yet.

SeaWorld Keeps Tanking

“C’mon SeaWorld. I’m sick to death of this routine, and so is the public.”

The latest earnings report is in, and attendance (and profits and revenues) keep dropping:

Shares of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. (SEAS) are falling by 6.72% to $17.35 in pre-market trading on Wednesday, as lower attendance at the company’s theme parks hurts earnings for the second quarter in a row.

SeaWorld’s net income for the 2014 third quarter declined to $87.2 million, or $1 per diluted share, compared to $120.7 million, or $1.34 per diluted share for the same period in 2013.

The marine mammal entertainment company reported adjusted net income for the 2014 third quarter of $88.6 million, or $1.01 per diluted share, which fell below the expectations of analysts polled by Bloomberg of $1.13 per share.

Revenue for the most recent quarter fell to $495.8 million versus $538.4 million for the 2013 third quarter. Analysts expected $496.4 million in revenue for the quarter.

SeaWorld reported attendance of 8.4 million guests versus 8.9 million from the same quarter last year.

Trying to explain the continued drop in attendance, SeaWorld continues to avoid the elephant, I mean blackfish, in the room: The company believes the decline in attendance was due to negative media attention resulting from a proposed bill in California that would ban the use of orcas in shows, and a “challenging competitive environment, particularly in Florida.”

Yes, the Blackfish bill is an issue, but the media attention on SeaWorld is focused much less on AB2140 than it is on the very essence of SeaWorld’s business: its reliance on keeping killer whales captive for entertainment.

A few more earnings reports like this one and SeaWorld suits will finally have to confront the fact that their business model is being rejected by the American public. That means SeaWorld needs a new business model that doesn’t rely on killer whale captivity (or at least moves killer whale captivity offshore to China, Russia and the Middle East).

It seems likely that SeaWorld is pursuing the latter strategy of developing its franchise in nations that don’t (yet) care as much about the ethics of killer whale captivity. But powerful ideas (like the idea that it’s not right to confine killer whales for profit) have a way of working their way around the globe. And if SeaWorld simply tries to move its failing business model to new countries, instead of reinventing its business model, it could find itself repeating the history it is experiencing here in the United States, and continuing to struggle.

What SeaWorld really needs is not new spin, but new leadership that is not so invested in the idea of killer whale captivity, and can move beyond that business model and SeaWorld’s history to think clearly and creatively about what will attract and entertain the crowds of the future.

NPR Takes A Look At SeaWorld’s Post-Blackfish Troubles

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Greg Allen, NPR’s Miami reporter got in touch earlier this week while reporting a story on SeaWorld’s efforts to rebound from its post-Blackfish malaise. Here’s the story Allen aired on All Things Considered this evening.

It’s interesting to note that SeaWorld seems to have decided that its head vet, Chris Dold, is SeaWorld’s most effective spokesperson (when I did my Shamu Stadium tour, in 2010, head trainer Kelley Flaherty-Clark was my guide.

Dold is definitely smooth, but he constructs a popular SeaWorld straw man when he says that Blackfish attacks SeaWorld’s staff as uncaring or abusive with SeaWorld’s killer whales. Quite the contrary. SeaWorld’s killer whales are worth millions and are the core of SeaWorld’s business, and therefore SeaWorld has every incentive to do everything it can to keep them healthy (and breeding). And I’ve always felt SeaWorld’s personnel, especially the trainers and Animal Care staff, are sincere in their efforts to care for the whales.

But when SeaWorld’s business interests conflict with the killer whales’ interests (such as the age or frequency with which females are bred; of mother-calf separations, for example) it is usually the business interests which prevail. And, more broadly, there is a limit to what can be achieved even with sincere efforts to care for the killer whales if the environment itself is inherently unsuitable. So I wouldn’t say SeaWorld’s people are abusive. I would say the killer whale entertainment business is abusive.

The Full Tilileak Document Dump

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Earlier this summer, dolphin advocate Russ Rector managed to use FOIA to secure the release from the National Marine Fisheries Service of all documents in their files related to the purchase and import of Tilikum, Haida (and her calf), and Nootka from Sealand of the Pacific to SeaWorld.

I’ve previously posted some of the documents, and analyzed them over on The Dodo (here, here, and here).

Today, with Russ’ permission, I have uploaded the rest to Scribd, so the full set is available for anyone to read and analyze (interesting tidbit: the cost to SeaWorld for all the permit work was $200).

I am sure there is plenty of additional info in the documents that is worth noting, so please feel free to comment and share your thoughts on anything that catches your attention. Of note, there are full necropsies and related analysis of the deaths of two SeaWorld killer whales, Kahana and Kenau, as well as SeaWorld’s full Marine Mammal Inventory Report from 1991. (I have had the necropsies analyzed by Dr. Jon Zern, a veterinarian, and will post his analysis in a separate post tomorrow morning).

Since these documents are all finally available thanks to Russ and his persistence, I have asked him for his thoughts on their significance. Here’s what he has to say:

The documents I obtained from National Marine Fisheries  Service (NMFS) after many years of requests and searching are going to be made public here for the first time. These documents are a wealth of information concerning marine mammals in captivity. The one thing that stands out to me is how Sealand, Sea World and the Canadian government all seemed to work together to mislead the National Marine Fisheries Service concerning a medical emergency at Sealand and the orca Tillicum, that did not exist. Yes, the animals were in a very bad situation created by a bunch of dumb people more interested in money than how the animals were treated and cared for. But there was no true medical emergency.

Before Tillicum killed the female trainer (Keltie Byrne) at Sealand there was no medical emergency, and suddenly after he killed her there was this medical emergency that everybody in the captive industry suddenly became aware of. My question is: why did this medical emergency only surface after he killed her, not before?

That in itself is very suspicious and proves to me that this was all about getting Tillicum–a sorely needed breeder–to Sea World no matter what they had to do or say.  Veterinarians of captive facilities and those beholden to the dolphin captivity industry wrote letters saying if he wasn’t moved to Sea World immediately he was going to die. This was a set up. SeaWorld, Sealand and the Canadian government said exactly what they needed to say to mislead NMFS into issuing the permit for the emergency transport. This shows me the permitting process at NMFS is broken and archaic and does not truly protect marine mammals as the Marine Mammal Protection Act mandates. This shows me the Marine Mammal Protection Act at this point in time is the Marine Mammal Facility Protection Act. In the coming days I will be asking NMFS and The Marine Mammal Commission to ask Congress for a full program review of the permitting process for the import and export of marine mammals to and from the United States.

These documents were kept secret for too long. That’s a problem. When we get so far downstream from any incident it becomes old news and seems to be ignored. That seems to be why the captivity industry lobbies government agencies and other captive facilities to make sure this sort of information doesn’t come to light at the appropriate time. These documents have spent 22 years waiting to be discovered by the public. It’s a lot of reading so go through them and see what you can find. Please contact me if you need any assistance please contact me at captivitykills@Comcast.net.

Russ Rector

Tilikum At Sealand, Uncut

I’ve got a post over at The Dodo, featuring the newly released 8-minute video SeaWorld made at the end of 1991, showing Sealand and Tilikum’s circumstances there. The video was submitted to the National Marine Fisheries Service in support of SeaWorld’s application for an emergency permit to transport Tilikum to SeaWorld Florida. Boy, do I wish we had had this video when we were putting Blackfish together.

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This video, along with lots of other documents related to Tilikum’s purchase and transfer to SeaWorld, was prised loose from NMFS archives by dolphin advocate Russ Rector. I’ve looked at some of the interesting aspects of the documents here and here. But I haven’t begun to dig through every page of the FOIA dump Russ scored. So next week, with Russ’ permission, I’ll post the whole cache on Scribd so anyone can review them.

TiliLeaks: Tilikum’s Traumatic Final Weeks At Sealand

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I’ve got a new post up at The Dodo, examining the set of documents from activist Russ Rector’s FOIA haul that relate to SeaWorld’s application to move Tilikum from Sealand to SeaWorld in January 1992 on an emergency basis. The documents (and some additional commentary I solicited from Steve Huxter, who managed SeaWorld’s killer whales at the time) add many troubling details to what we know about Tilikum’s sad experience at Sealand–most notably that before he was shipped to SeaWorld he was confined to Sealand’s tiny module for 17 days, with a noticeable impact on his health and mental attitude.

From the post, here is how Steve Huxter described what he observed:

In all his years at Sealand, I had never seen [Tilikum] so immobile in the module; he was listless at the surface all of the time. He floated for hours on the surface at the gate and facing the pool that held Haida, her calf, and Nootka. He seldom moved around and primarily only when he was offered food. For the first few days he ate well but his appetite seemed to fade and  there were times when we would give him food and he would simply let it slide out of his mouth and let it sink to the bottom of the module pool.

Read the full Dodo post here. I’ve embedded the full set of documents below, or you can read them here. They are worth reviewing because they contain lots of additional information about SeaWorld, Sealand and Tilikum.

For The Record: SeaWorld Pool Dimensions

Okay, this is only for people who are deep, deep in the weeds. Every once in a while I get an email asking me for the sizes of SeaWorld’s pools. And I have never really had rock-solid information on the dimensions. So, apart from the insights into SeaWorld’s thinking about Tilikum, Haida, and Nootka contained in Russ Rector’s FOIA’d documents, I was glad to see that SeaWorld’s 1991 application to import and display Tilikum, Haida, and Nootka from Sealand included…..very detailed pool dimensions. So I have posted them below (I have left SeaWorld Ohio out since that is now closed).

One thing that jumped out at me from this section of SeaWorld;’s application is just how few killer whales SeaWorld had in 1991 (12, including Ohio), compared to the 29 they keep today (23 at SeaWorld parks, and 6 at Loro Parque).

So, for the record, here are the sizes of SeaWorld’s pools in 1991:

SWF Pool Sizes 1

SWF Pool Sizes 2

SWC Pool Sizes 1SWC Pool Sizes 2

SWT Pool Sizes 1SWT Pool Sizes 2