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The Ridiculous, Bloody, Scientifically Questionable History of Shark Week

How a goofy summertime stunt landed Discovery at the top of the television food chain.
The Ridiculous, Bloody, Scientifically Questionable History of Shark Week
Shark by Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy.

Shark Week, the beloved seven-day bonanza of shark porn and geeky marine science—the longest-running event on cable television—was born one night at the Hay-Adams hotel.

It was the spring of 1987, and the Discovery Channel brass were holed up in a suite, trying to conjure a killer idea—anything that would get their fledgling network some attention.

Television was still the domain of the big three broadcast networks then, and Discovery, on the air just two years, was trying to find its way among the other new niche cable networks like ESPN, CNN, and Nickelodeon. John Hendricks, its founder, envisioned it as a channel full of documentaries. But what Discovery had become was more like cable TV’s oddball: Most of its lineup consisted of dry, pedantic nature and history films, with the occasional really oddball pick thrown in, such as a prime-time block of Soviet broadcasts. Hardly anyone was watching. In those first years, Discovery’s ratings hovered around one point, equal to 1 percent of all television-owning households in the US.

At the Hay-Adams confab, any idea was worth spitballing. It was getting late when Steve Cheskin, Discovery’s 27-year-old programming manager—present only because one of his bosses had yanked him into a company elevator when they left for the hotel—turned his thoughts to an industry hero of his, Brandon Tartikoff. The NBC president had gotten his big break at a Chicago TV station in the 1970s when he scheduled “Gorilla My Dreams”—an entire week of big-ape movies.

“What about Shark Week?” Cheskin suggested.

Everyone in the room knew that of all the wildlife documentaries Discovery put on, the ones about sharks nudged up the ratings dial. The reason was simple: Jaws. Since 1975, the year Steven Spielberg’s classic summer fright debuted, the public fascination with the sea’s scariest creatures had hardly abated—no less than the fourth film, Jaws: The Revenge, was due out soon.

“That’s it,” said Hendricks.

On July 17, 1988, a little over a year later, Discovery’s first Shark Week was on the air. The weeklong stunt at the peak of summer—a dead zone for TV—turned out to be pure viewer bait at a time of year when everyone was headed to the beach and there was little else to watch besides that year’s Democratic National Convention or reruns. For the first time ever, the audience for a Discovery show topped a million viewers.

Twenty-eight years later, Shark Week is a programming block turned cultural phenomenon, the inspiration for frat-house drinking games and the butt of sitcom jokes. “Here’s some advice I wish I would have gotten when I was your age,” Tracy Morgan’s character once told Kenneth the NBC page on 30 Rock. “Live every week like it’s Shark Week.”

To plug the shows, Discovery sometimes decks out its Silver Spring headquarters with “Chompie,” an inflatable beast that resembles a man-eating great white. Photograph courtesy of Discovery Channel.

The buzzy gimmick dreamed up at the Hay-Adams all those years ago—now watched by more than 40 million people in the US and broadcast in 71 other countries—might also go down as one of the greatest low-risk, high-reward moves in broadcasting history. That’s because Shark Week’s evolution partly tracks the arc of Discovery itself, from a scrappy start-up to a global behemoth, and Washington’s biggest media company. Today Discovery Communications owns 13 channels in the US and airs in more than 220 other countries and territories. Headquartered in Silver Spring (where a 446-foot-long inflatable great white named Chompie sometimes protrudes from the building come summer), it employs nearly 8,000 people worldwide. In 2008, the company went public with a market capitalization of $6 billion that has more than doubled since. Last year, it had revenue of $6.3 billion and its chief executive, David Zaslav, made $156.1 million—the highest compensation of any CEO in America.

Shark Week shows have gotten bigger, richer, and more immersive as the company has evolved, and not always without controversy. Still, viewers keep packing into living rooms for the often scary, sometimes nerdy, always titillating ritual that’s as much a fixture of summer pop culture as superhero movies and the season’s hit song.

The first Shark Week show was Caged in Fear, a part-science, part-adventure documentary about researchers testing a motorized cage to shield them on dives.

Rounding out the week were films like Shark Callers of Kontu, a look at tribal shark-calling in Papua New Guinea, and The Shark Takes a Siesta, about the Zen-like state of a cave-dwelling species off the coast of Mexico.

“It was intended to capture the attention of the operators but also to drive consumer demand to say, ‘We would like you to carry Discovery Channel,’ ” says former Discovery executive Clark Bunting. “Shark Week was a way for us to have some fun and also try to attract other cable operators to say, ‘Wow, who are those guys?’ and ‘We should carry them.’ ”

The gambit worked. A year later, Discovery was in 40.6 million homes—45 percent of all TV-owning households—and growing faster than any other cable channel.

In those early years, Shark Week had an almost academic focus on diving, exploration, and species preservation. Most films followed a similar formula: Stick cameras on the people already doing research about a part of the world you don’t normally get to see. The tone was earnest, the action slow. People making underwater documentaries at the time had come up under the legendary Jacques Cousteau and his serene cinematic style.

Which is not to say that even at its most placid, there wasn’t a whiff of danger in the early Shark Weeks. “We were making a dive at dusk,” recalls John McKenney, director of 1990’s Sand Tigers, about a species schooling off a shipwreck near North Carolina. “I’d never done it at night. The sun had just gone down, and I had the big camera in my hand with the light off. All of a sudden, I see this big shadow swimming by. I turned on my light, and there’s this mature female, about eight or nine feet, and the next thing I know she just rips the movie light right off my camera. Snapped it like a twig.”

The franchise quickly spawned the highest form of flattery in television: imitators. In 1992, Cheskin was at a convention and saw a syndication producer named Bruce Klein hawking a miniseries called Shark Terror. It was a “holy shit” moment, Cheskin says—and sure enough, the knockoffs were soon airing on 130 local channels around the US.

The inspiration for Shark Week came in part from America’s obsession with Jaws by Peter Benchley. Photograph by AF Archive/Alamy.

Discovery had to ratchet up its game. It brought in the godfather of the genre—Jaws author Peter Benchley—to be the first-ever host of Shark Week in 1994. And it added more bite to its lineups, teeing up programs about ferocious hammerheads and 20-foot-long great whites, the species from Jaws. “The ones with the biggest teeth, that are the most dangerous, those are the ones that did the highest ratings,” recalls Cheskin. “If it was a more benign shark and nice, those wouldn’t necessarily do as well.”

Changes in technology helped the franchise stay fresh. One of the biggest reasons earlier iterations were slow-moving was technical. Cinematographers of the ’80s and early ’90s used Super-16 cameras they had to manually wind up before diving in, and each reel of film held hardly any footage. “One hundred feet of film—that’s three minutes when you run it at 24 frames per second,” says Nick Caloyianis, a Baltimore filmmaker who makes underwater movies for Discovery. “And then you had no way of knowing what you got until the film got processed. Imagine going on location for a month, having no idea what’s on each reel. Did the camera have some internal malfunction? Did the shutter stick? Did the film get fogged?”

By the late ’90s, though, the industry standard for TV footage began moving from film to digital. These newer, lower-maintenance cameras allowed documentary crews to get better footage, and more of it, and to play it back right on the boat. That meant filmmakers could get much more elaborate and show sharks in more detail than previously possible.

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Take Air Jaws. In 2000, filmmaker Jeff Kurr heard from a friend about a great white in South Africa jumping out of the water to grab a seal. “I couldn’t believe it until I actually saw videos or still photos,” Kurr says. “I remember sending some of those pictures to Discovery. They said, ‘This is unbelievable—get down there.’ ” Kurr made his way to Seal Island, where tens of thousands of seals reside along with the white sharks that feast on them. The resulting show was probably Shark Week’s artistic pinnacle. Full of dramatic footage of massive great whites rocketing out of the water for lunch at 25 miles an hour, it upended commonly held assumptions that the species was slow and lumbering.

And—the best part for Discovery executives always looking for a new angle to sell—it won Shark Week its highest ratings to date. Most Shark Week shows are one-offs. Air Jaws, by contrast, became a franchise within the franchise that still airs today.

Hits aside, the future of Shark Week became a recurring debate inside Discovery.

Says Bunting: “Plenty of people thought maybe it had run its course after five-plus years.” After all, Cheskin says, “How do you top what you did the year before? How do you tell more stories about sharks that haven’t been told before?” (One way: find footage of great whites having sex. Discovery is still searching for that.)

The company began looking down the hall at the new celebrity talent it had started cultivating after the breakout success of Steve Irwin, the enthusiastic Aussie who wrestled grisly reptiles on The Crocodile Hunter. His show aired for five seasons on Animal Planet, which is owned by Discovery. “You had to watch him—it was like watching a train wreck happen,” says Les Stroud, a thrill-seeking Canadian who hosted Discovery’s stunty show Survivorman. “I actually don’t like a lot of the way he treated animals and did things, but he changed the face of it.”

Irwin’s success prompted Discovery to launch a passel of personality-driven reality series: A family-run motorcycle shop became American Chopper; a pair of wiseacre nerds launched MythBusters; a washed-up QVC host named Mike Rowe started doing Dirty Jobs; Stroud became the star of Survivorman. These “reality” guys were charming and seemingly improvisational. As the new faces of Discovery, they all made star turns on Shark Week.

Stroud’s first show, in 2007, was Shark Feeding Frenzy. It opens with him at a picnic table cutting hunks of meat seemingly to use as bait for “five of the most dangerous sharks in the sea”—reef, tiger, hammerhead, lemon, great white. The big reveal: The table and, thus, Stroud are already sitting in shallow, shark-infested water. In his 2008 follow-up, Surviving Sharks, Stroud starts out in a life raft floating above a school of sharks and proceeds to stick a knife into his raft, which deflates and drops him to the hungry creatures below. (As you can tell, Survivorman survived both ordeals.)

In the last decade, comedians, reality-TV stars, and celebrity hosts have become regulars. Les Stroud (top left), Craig Ferguson (top right), Andy Samberg (bottom left), and Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (bottom right). Photographs courtesy of Discovery Channel.

“We were told if you’re not telling people the shark is evil, the shark wants to kill you, then it’s not going to be a good story,” says former Discovery executive Brooke Runnette, a veteran of Frontline and Nightline who was handed the keys to the franchise in 2009. The channel was just as sensational in its pimping of Shark Week. The year before, Runnette says, Discovery sent TV critics a tattered bathing suit and a personalized obituary—as if the recipient had been eaten by a shark.

“A shark literally represents the last, unknowable wild,” Runnette says. “I’m never going to run into a lion because I’m never going to be standing in Africa in a place where a lion is going to eat me. Probably not going to get eaten by a grizzly, either. But I could step my toe in the water and you never know. I think that essential wildness is unbelievably compelling over and over again.”

All the same, even though Shark Week was the channel’s signature brand, after more than 20 years it was showing its age inside Discovery. “People said, ‘Should we just stop?’ all the time,” Runnette says. “It was like, if you’re going to pull the plug, do it. If not, well, f— it—let’s just have some fun.”

The channel took that ethos to the extreme in 2013. That year, the centerpiece of Shark Week was Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, a two-hour “documentary” purporting that a boatful of marine researchers in South Africa suffered a gruesome demise in the mouth of a massive predator. This predator was supposedly the 50-foot-long prehistoric shark known as Megalodon that, the show postulated, still roamed the oceans. If you didn’t catch the super-brief, opaquely worded disclaimer at the beginning of the show, you might have thought you were taking in a true story. But there was nothing real at all about Megalodon: Its scientists and divers were actually actors role-playing a fictional story. And there’s no prehistoric Megalodon still lurking in the seas—the creature has been extinct for 2 million years.

Viewers ate it up; 4.8 million people tuned in, the most in Shark Week history by a big margin. But the channel took flack. Many of the shark nerds who watched religiously in Shark Week’s early days had long lost respect for the franchise, with all its emphasis on blood and guts. Megalodon was an even more despicable transgression. “Guys, if there was a 50 foot predatory fish that lived in shallow coastal water, SOMEONE WOULD HAVE F—ING SEEN ONE,” tweeted David Shiffman, a PhD candidate in marine biology at the University of Miami.

Shiffman and others penned angry articles slamming Discovery for the ruse. “I’ve spoken to hundreds of schoolchildren over the past couple years,” says Shiffman. “Every time, someone asks me about this, and every time, they are disappointed at me for telling them it’s not real.”

To Runnette, who says she left Discovery before Megalodon got the green light, the show fell short by not being more like its new competition at SyFy: Sharknado. In that campy, low-budget 2013 comedy—which instantly made itself a favorite of the masses on Twitter—a funnel cloud launches sharks at Los Angeles. “Sharknado has a lot of a nudge and a wink,” she says. “And if people don’t feel like they’re being tricked or made fools of, then they don’t really mind.”

A sequel to Megalodon fared poorly on Discovery by comparison last year, and now Shark Week’s newest caretaker, Howard Swartz, says he wants to get back to what won’t piss off the shark intelligentsia. “Moving forward, I think the idea is let’s focus on the science, the technology, and the conservation,” he says. “There are also people who just like to see big, scary, badass sharks, and people in peril and imminent danger.” Shark Week, it seems, is still trying to have it both ways.

After almost three decades, the inherent challenge for the showrunners—how do you keep sharks sexy?—hasn’t gone away. In fact, it has only intensified in light of the ways TV consumption has changed. According to Leichtman Research Group, 84 percent of all television-owning homes had cable coverage in 2010, but that figure has flatlined since. Discovery has to figure out how to retain the cord-cutters who want to stream television over the internet without a monthly cable bill. That’s doubly difficult for a cable “event” like Shark Week. As Runnette says, “There’s shows you can watch alone on your iPad, like Game of Thrones. Other shows you want to have butts lined up on a couch. You want to watch sporting events with other people—you want to watch Shark Week with other people.”

Shark Week’s nemesis at SyFy airs July 22, and for fans in Washington there’s a bonus. This year, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! brings its cone of toothy destruction to the capital, with cameos by Ann Coulter as Veep, Michele Bachmann as herself, the Redskins’ Ryan Kerrigan as a NASA technician, and former congressman Anthony Weiner as his boss. (You can count on DC’s social-media strivers to break the internet with their live tweeting.)

Discovery is preempting the competition—Shark Week starts earlier than ever this year, on June 26. So far, the lineup for season 28 includes the latest Air Jaws, yet another sequel to Great White Serial Killer, and a new show about researchers working in Cuba. The first teaser features a jolly cast of surfers, sunbathers, and scuba divers all singing “It’s the most wonderful week of the year!” to the Andy Williams Christmas tune as toothy beasts swirl about. It’s hammy, and weird, but also weirdly compelling, and you sort of can’t stop watching it, just like Shark Week itself.

 

Update, June 24, 2016: The 2016 edition of Shark Week begins even earlier this year, starting Sunday, June 24. This year, expect again the latest Air Jaws, yet another sequel to Great White Serial Killer, and tie-ins to The Shallows, a survival thriller starring Blake Lively as a surfer who gets caught in shark-infested waters.

Staff writer Benjamin Freed (@brfreed on Twitter) can be reached at bfreed@washingtonian.com.

This article appears in our July 2015 issue of Washingtonian.


Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.