The Evolution of Shark Week, Pop-Culture Leviathan

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

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.


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."

By 1994, Shark Week had lured Jaws author Peter Benchley on board as the show's first-ever host. For its 15th anniversary in 1997, the sharks had costars—Celebrity Shark Week, it was dubbed, with appearances by Julie Bowen, Mark McGrath, and Brian McKnight, among others. Volleyball player Gabrielle Reece jumped into shark-infested waters without ever really informing the producers that she was more than a little new to scuba-diving: "I thought if I told [Discovery]," she said, "they wouldn't let me come."

By the time 2006 rolled around, Runnette says, the Discovery team had a pretty good idea as to the phenomenon Shark Week had become. But when Runnette tuned into NBC on a Thursday night and watched Tracy Morgan deliver his famous line on 30 Rock, she says, "That was a big moment."


When Runnette took over as Shark Week's showrunner in 2010, there was one rule: Don't mess it up. For that reason, she says, the execs have made a concerted effort to keep its formula consistent over time. Even so, though, there have been several phases of evolution in Shark Week's content style.

shark jump gif.gifAn "Air Jaws" shot captured by Phantom cameras. (ITM Instruments) The new programming on this 25th edition of Shark Week, for instance, is all made possible by one slight (or not-so-slight) technological update: In the aughts, Runnette's teams began shooting with a Phantom, a high-speed video camera that can capture 1,000 frames per second. Just recently, the Phantom's signature, breathtaking, slower-than-slow-mo shots allowed TV audiences to scrutinize athletes' every bulging, twitching muscle at the London Olympics, and they've worked some of the same magic with Discovery audiences. "It's a completely different look at sharks than we've ever seen before," she explains. "The first time they ever got that 'Air Jaws' breach that we're all so familiar with on tape was in 2001. Before that, that was kind of a fisherman's rumor."

The detail and focus that the Phantom camera offers has revolutionized Shark Week's storytelling, Runnette says. "Now that they can go underwater with that underwater housing for the Phantom, you're seeing these sharks as individuals in a way that you would never have been able to see them before." Sunday night's opening feature Air Jaws Apocalypse, she adds, follows a single 14-foot great white shark named Colossus, depicting it almost as a principal character—a feat made possible with the aid of the high-speed underwater camera.

Before the advent of Phantom cameras, Runnette says, Shark Week's evolution included a growing reliance on vivid human testimonies and gruesome cautionary accounts. "It's kind of like a campfire tale," she says. "One thing I've found kind of amazing is that almost invariably, the people who talk to us about surviving their attacks all say, 'I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.' Or, 'I was swimming when I saw a seal over there and I should have gotten out of the water.' Or, 'It was dusk. Everybody knows you don't get in the shallow water at dusk.'"

To a large extent, she says, the ominous tones and the imminent danger are still what draws viewers to Shark Week. In the past 25 years, Runnette and her team managed to isolate "what works" into a neat, distilled list of elements: "The shark is the star. Just keep showing that. Don't give too much reason to worry. Make sure we stay outside, because it's summertime, and everybody wants to see the colors and the light outside. You don't want to be inside talking to people; if anything, you want to be outside talking to people. Just be in the water, with the shark; or be out on the boat, with the shark."


To this day, Runnette says, the team continues to develop its programming simply by asking themselves the question that spawned the first Shark Week: "What would be the most fun?" ("Chum underpants" and "the meat suit" are just two unforgettable responses that Runnette mentions, laughing at the memory—but clarifies that neither one has ever been or will ever be actually implemented.)

Shark Week, though, Runnette says, has never been at a loss for fun. "It's taught us that it wants to be almost like a holiday—which it is for a lot of people," Runnette says. "They want to wave little flags that say 'Happy Shark Week.' I always see pictures of all these cupcakes and these party decorations that they have to celebrate Shark Week." Runnette has even received photos of people showing off new Shark Week tattoos.