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