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The History And Evolution Of Shark Week, America's Summertime Obsession

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Summer means vacation, picnics and spending your days at the beach. When the warmest months of the year finally arrive, you obviously want to spend as much time outside as possible.

Except, of course, during one week of the year - Shark Week, to be precise. That's usually your time to stay inside and lounge on your couch as you see more sharks than you ever hope to come into contact with in real life swim, eat and almost terrify you enough to not only skip the beach for the rest of the summer but also make your heart race a little bit even when you're in the bathtub.

These days, Shark Week, which kicked off July 5, is a veritable cultural phenomenon, pulling in more than 42 million viewers last year. It has featured celebrities from Andy Samberg to Heidi Klum to Julie Bowen. The TV event has been referenced everywhere from 30 Rock to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to The Colbert Report. It has inspired a whole host of competitors, from History's Civil War Week in 2011 to Sportsman Channel's Aporkalypse 2014 to SharkFest, Nat Geo Wild's blatant Shark Week rip-off, which also began July 5.

Basically, all you have to do is say the phrase "Shark Week," and mostly anyone will know you're talking about a week of some educational, some campy, but all-entertaining programming on Discovery Channel dedicated to one of the most-feared creatures on the planet. Seriously, what would we do without Shark Week?

How Shark Week Initially Set Sail

Though Shark Week might not have always been as ubiquitous as it is in our society today, it was actually a hit from the get-go. Shark Week premiered on Discovery on July 17, 1988, and it achieved a prime-time rating nearly double the channel's average. But really, who would have thought that a week's worth of programming of shows with titles that included Caged in Fear, The Sharks Take a Siesta and Sharks of a Different Color would go on to achieve that type of runaway success?

Discovery's executives thought so, apparently. The idea for Shark Week came about when the young network was trying to figure out how to attract more viewers. Discovery saw a bump in ratings every time shark-related programming aired, so it was "a no-brainer" for the network to beef up this kind of content, the network's former president and general manager W. Clark Bunting, who is credited as one of the creators of Shark Week, told Michigan State University's State News in 2012.

However, if you thought the origins of Shark Week had to be more exciting than that for a week of programming partly known for its ridiculousness, there's an alternate version of this story.

"As I've heard it, [Bunting and fellow Discovery executives John Hendricks and Steve Cheskin] were just talking about what kinds of things would be fun to do on Discovery," former executive producer of Shark Week Brooke Runnette told The Atlantic in 2012. "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."

When Did Shark Week Make A Big Splash?

Shark Week was popular right when it premiered on July 17, 1988, but when exactly did it become the pop cultural juggernaut that it is today?

Runnette told The Atlantic that 30 Rock episode from 2006 when Tracy tells Kenneth to "live every week like it's Shark Week" was "a big moment" for the TV event. Even before that, Shark Week was making some major waves (pun obviously intended) in our culture. Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa, which aired during Shark Week in 2001, caught some attention for showing the first-ever footage of sharks breaching, a behavior that consists of jumping out of the water to catch prey. New discoveries like this along with advances in science and technology have contributed to Shark Week's enduring popularity over the years, according to Howard Swartz, Discovery's vice president of documentaries and specials.

"Every year, you just get this better access, whether it's undiscovered habitats or previously undocumented behavior, so there's always new questions. There's always new behaviors. There's new discoveries," Swartz said in an interview with T-Lounge. "I think as long as there's new science and new stories and things like that, I think it will continue to just be incredibly popular."

Human beings have always had an insatiable curiosity about predators of the wild, and Americans have long been fascinated by sharks in particular. It's no surprise then that sharks have become such a huge part of our pop culture. Jaws broke box office records when it hit theaters in 1975 and was recently re-released in theaters in honor of the film's 40th anniversary. Syfy's Sharknado franchise transcended cult status to become a national TV event whenever the latest installment airs. A back-up dancer dressed as a goofy-looking shark stole this year's Super Bowl Halftime Show from headliner Katy Perry.

Though sharks, from the ferocious to the friendly, have provided countless hours of entertainment over the years, the reason we find sharks so captivating may be because of something inherent to them.

"These are animals that have evolved over 400 million years, and as just part of their evolution, they have become these absolute proficient and expert hunting machines and animals. They're just amazing, fascinating creatures. I think they have this mythological quality about them given how long they've lived on the earth," Swartz said. "They seem to have figured something out."

However, it wasn't until around 1916 when Americans really started to take notice of sharks after a series of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey caused widespread panic across the country. These events, along with Jaws, contributed to the creation of the commonly held image of sharks as terrifying beasts, even though you are much more likely to be killed by a whole bunch of animals you probably encounter more often. Perhaps Sharknado screenwriter Thunder Levin put it best when he chalked up our obsession with sharks in USA Today in 2014: "Things that scare us fascinate us."

The Evolution Of Shark Week

These days, Shark Week has a reputation for sensationalized programming, and that was always kind of the case. After the first Shark Week, early programming continued to have titles that seem more appropriate for B movies rather than for science documentary series. These include 1989's Shark: Maneater or Myth?, The Man Who Loves Sharks and Teeth of Death. Some early Shark Weeks themseleves even had titles, such as 1991's Shark Week: The Revenge, 1992's Shark Week: They're Back and 1993's Shark Week: We Dare You to Watch, all of which seemed to wink at the hyped-up names of sequels to big-budget Hollywood movies.

Soon, Shark Week started to feature some high-profile endorsements. In 1994, Jaws author Peter Benchley served as the first host of Shark Week, keeping the TV event's cinematic flavor alive by introducing each show at a location where Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Jaws was filmed. Shark Week had a full-fledged celebrity edition in 2002, which featured the likes of Mark McGrath, Brian McKnight and Gabrielle Reece swimming with sharks. Discovery would soon do some cross-promotion, incorporating its other hit shows into Shark Week with special editions of MythBusters and Dirty Jobs in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

Runnette told The Atlantic in 2012 that the Phantom, a high-speed video camera, has had a huge impact on Shark Week programming in recent years. Capturing 1,000 frames per second, the Phantom enabled Discovery to get that shark breaching footage in 2001 and has overall allowed a more in-depth, vivid look at these creatures underwater, basically developing them as characters in and of themselves.

Over the years, Discovery has come under fire for the accuracy of its Shark Week programming, which has also been accused of being detrimental to sharks, playing into the image of them as ruthless beasts waiting to kill anything in their way. That debate came to a head in 2013 when the fake documentary special Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives kicked off Shark Week that year. Viewers criticized Discovery for not being more explicit about the fact that the special, about modern-day sightings of a prehistoric shark, was a hoax, especially when the network prides itself on educational programming. Discovery defended the decision with Shark Week's executive producer Michael Sorensen saying, "It's one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, 'can Megalodon exist today?' It's (the) ultimate Shark Week fantasy. The stories have been out there for years and with 95 percent of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?" Fact or fiction be damned, Megalodon is the highest-rated Shark Week program of all time.

This year's Shark Week will have a greater emphasis on science and research, according to Swartz, who also said this move isn't related to any criticism the network may have received about the educational value of past Shark Week programming. 

"We've experimented with different types of storytelling over the years. This year, we have new leadership, and we just decided we're going to highlight conservation, we're going to highlight science, we're going to highlight technology," Swartz said. "So really, it's forward-looking. It's not a response to anything in particular. It's just really wanting to deliver on that core brand promise of exploration and adventure and showing off how magnificent these animals are and how important these animals are to the ecosystem."

Shark Week has also tried to keep up with the times through the years, engaging viewers through Discovery's app, a live "Shark Cam" and a late-night talk show called Shark After Dark, which is hosted by horror filmmaker Eli Roth this year. However, the constant improvements to the technology used to study sharks have really helped Discovery find ways to keep Shark Week programming fresh and new, even after 28 years on the air.

"I think because of technological advances, there's always new places to go, there's always new things that we could see that we couldn't see before. For the science community, as technology allows them to make newer and newer discoveries every year, it makes more questions for scientists as well. And those questions, it pushes them into new directions for research. So as they move into research, we're fortunate enough to tag along with them to learn along with them," Swartz said. "I think there's always something new and exciting to see."

What You Can Expect From This Year's Shark Week

This year, cable's longest-running event will have more hours of programming than ever before - 19, to be exact. This year's Shark Week schedule includes the event's first-ever expedition to Cuba for Tiburones: The Sharks of Cuba to see if large sharks like "El Monstruo," a 70-foot Great White found off the island's coast 70 years ago and believed to be the largest shark ever caught, still exist in this part of the world. Other programming includes the third installment of the Alien Sharks series, Return of the Great White Serial Killer, which investigated a series of shark attacks in Surf Beach, Calif., and Shark Planet, which will showcase footage of more than 13 different shark species around the globe.

Clearly, Discovery knows how much people go ballistic for Shark Week, so this year, the network is going back into the water for a special weekend of new Shark Week programming in August, which will include a new MythBusters special revisiting Jaws myths in honor of the film's 40th anniversary.

"We want to bookend the summer, you know, when you start off the summer with Shark Week and then as the summer winds down and everybody is getting ready to go back to school, we wanted to sort of bookend it again," Swartz said. "We're keeping our focus on sharks all summer long."

If Shark Week continues to inspire this same level of enthusiasm among viewers as well as achieve ratings success, you can bet Discovery will continue to focus on sharks for many years to come.

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