The Evolution of Shark Week, Pop-Culture Leviathan

Shark Week's journey from lowly cocktail-napkin scribble to national TV holiday

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Shutterstock / Iriana Shiyan

On Sunday evening, Shark Week kicked off its 25th annual TV marathon devoted to the world's deadliest creatures. Which means that for the next six nights, Americans will be able to marvel, shudder, and peek between their fingers at what Shark Week's executive producer Brooke Runnette calls one of the last wild things—maybe the last truly wild thing—on the planet.

"The Earth is covered by water, and sharks are in almost every bit of that water," she says. "And yet, we know so little about them. Especially the great whites. When we do see them, we're like, 'You're bigger than me, and more powerful. You're the product of 450 million years of evolution, and you are, as sharks go, perfect. You win.'"

Now the longest-running cable TV programming event in history, Shark Week has cemented itself as a fixture in the pop-culture lexicon, both seriously and meme-tastically. Stephen Colbert and Tracy Morgan (the voices of their generation, of course) have both publicly professed the sanctity of Shark Week in recent years: In 2006, Morgan's character on 30 Rock sagely advised a colleague to "Live every week like it's Shark Week", and Colbert proclaimed it the second holiest annual holiday next to the week after Christmas in 2010. (Putting that in perspective: When last year's 150th anniversary of the Civil War spawned a similarly formatted Civil War Week on the History Channel, it opened to mixed reviews and little fanfare—and it doesn't even have a single drinking game to its name.)

Every summer since 1988, the little educational-programming week that could has drawn in massive audiences, hitting 29 million viewers in 2008 and close to 30 million last year. But at its humble beginnings, Shark Week was just a shadowy, elusive idea, lurking in the wet depths of the Discovery Channel creators' imaginations.

THE BIRTH OF SHARK NATION

Gizmodo once called Shark Week "the brainchild of a stoned Discovery Channel employee that became a national holiday." But according to Runnette, none of the founding fathers of Shark Week were stoned at the moment of Shark Week's conception—though they may very well have been lightly inebriated.

"I wouldn't say stoned, but the idea was definitely scribbled down on the back of a cocktail napkin," Runnette says with a laugh. The legend, as she tells it, goes like this: In the early years of the Discovery Channel, executives John Hendricks, Clark Bunting, and Steve Cheskin, widely considered the three main primogenitors of the Discovery Channel, were seated at a bar among a group of their Discovery colleagues in what one can only imagine was probably euphemized as a "post-work brainstorming session."

The next events played out exactly as millions of shark fanatics across the globe have probably imagined. "As I've heard it, they were just talking about what kinds of things would be fun to do on Discovery," the executive producer says. "And one of them said something like, 'You know what would be awesome? Shark Week!' And somebody in that nexus scribbled it down on a napkin. You know how that is. An idea in a bar comes from many fathers." (An interview in Michigan State University's State News last week credits Bunting, an MSU alum, as the creator of Shark Week—and Bunting told the publication the idea surfaced "in a discussion about programming strategies.")

It had been a decade since Steven Spielberg's Jaws gave moviegoers the collective creeps about open-water swimming, and the fledgling network had noticed a spike in ratings whenever shark-related programming was aired on Discovery. So the three amigos got to work back at the studio, and in the late summer of 1988, Shark Week hit the airwaves.

The first Shark Week opened on July 17, 1988, with Caged in Fear, a science-history piece on the process of testing motorized shark cages. Ratings that week surged to twice what the network usually garnered in primetime. Bunting told the State News he wished he could say he'd had some inkling at the time that he'd created a pop-culture titan—but frankly, he said, he was "as surprised as anyone else" to see it take off so explosively.

Its success spawned a sequel in 1989, and its ascent from there, remarkably, never faltered. "Everybody was always fairly surprised that it kept working," Runnette says. "It kind of taught us what it wanted to be, in a way."

In the following years, Shark Week's producers learned on the fly. They've always been careful to send out experienced natural-history filmmaking teams to shoot shark footage—"not just cowboys," Runnette says. However, "We know more and more about shark behavior now, so nobody dresses like a seal when they go out to shoot video of a shark. You don't want to look like food," she says. "They also realized they could build a seal decoy [to attract the sharks] and get that 'Air Jaws' breaching shot in a way that actually allowed them to focus the camera and [compose] the shot."

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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