At first it wasn’t scary at all. The cage I was in seemed secure, and it was submerged in only a few feet of the clear, cobalt blue ocean water of Oahu’s North Shore, shallow enough for the top to poke out and allow me to periodically come up for air. And after just two sharks appeared during my first five minutes in the water—at a safe enough distance to barely be perceptible—this swimming-with-sharks excursion was turning into little more than a tourist trap.
Or so I thought.
As I tried to frame a shot of one of the Sandbar sharks in the distance with my underwater camera, another, much larger and much closer Galapagos shark swam into focus. Then another. And another. Within seconds there were too many sharks to count, at least two dozen, all easily a foot or more in length, swimming around the cage in a frenzied circle. Enticed by the bloody, dismembered tuna used for chum, and curious about the strange structure and unfamiliar objects in the water—my cagemate, a petite brunette from Colombia, and me—the sharks formed an underwater conga line, hitting into the steel bars and plexiglass viewing window as they darted by. The brute force behind the nose-nudges caused the cage to swing violently from side to side.
Things began getting really scary really quickly. I could see my cagemate’s panicked eyes through her diving mask. But I wasn’t nervous. Swimming with sharks had been a bucket list item of mine since age 12, and those final, exhilarating 20 minutes in the water with them only heightened my desire to take the plunge again. Except next time without the cage.
The Jaws movies had piqued my interest as a child, but what really got me hooked on this exotic creature that perfectly combines speed, grace, efficiency, and aggression was Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. Apparently other viewers have felt the same way. Now in its 23rd year, Shark Week—which begins on Sunday and runs through Aug. 7—ranks as cable television’s longest-running event. And instead of waning, it is more popular than ever—the last three Shark Weeks were the three most watched ever, averaging a cumulative viewership of 27.6 million viewers over seven days, according to Nielsen data.
“Shark Week has become an indelible part of pop culture and a must-see event each summer,” says Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav. “There is no exact formula for why some franchises grab the public consciousness and never let go, but with Shark Week it starts with great storytelling, cutting edge production values, and a fascinating character: the shark!”
Click the Image to See Shark Week’s Scary Stars
The idea for a week of programming about sharks arose in the late ‘80s when Steve Cheskin—now the head of programming for Discovery’s sister network TLC—blurted it out during a brainstorming meeting at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. No one could have foreseen the impact it would have on the growth of not only Discovery, but also the entire cable landscape. No one except for Discovery founder John Hendricks, who immediately saw its potential.
Hendricks launched Discovery in 1985 with a vision to tell great stories through documentary programming that enables people to—according to its mission statement—“explore their world and satisfy their curiosity.” The cable industry was still in its infancy at the time, reaching only about half the homes in the country—today more than 100 million homes are wired for cable, or roughly every household in the nation. And while nearly every cable network, from HBO and Bravo to MTV and A&E, now produces its own original programming, back then the idea was still a novelty.
Though it was a low-rated network, Hendricks convinced cable operators like Comcast and Time Warner to carry Discovery because it would promote programming diversity with wholesome, educational content not seen on other networks.
“Cable distributors have powerful incentives to carry Discovery,” says television historian Tim Brooks, author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. “It’s one network they have to have because it has a good image and parents and community boards like it.”
Best of Shark Week—Shark Attack: Predator in the Panhandle
Shark Week was an attempt to get viewers to sample Discovery during the summer months when broadcast network programming was on hiatus. Perfectly combining education and camp—a giant, inflatable shark currently sits on top of Discovery’s headquarters in Silver Springs, Maryland—it was an immediate hit with audiences, helping grow Discovery into a company with $3.6 billion in annual revenue, and spawning sister network, Animal Planet, in 1996. (In addition to its eponymous channel and Animal Planet, Discovery also owns the channels TLC, OWN, Planet Green, Science Channel, Investigation Discovery, and The Hub in the U.S., and more than 100 other channels around the world.)
It didn’t take long for Shark Week to engrain itself into pop culture, with celebrities like Heidi Klum and Nicole Kidman serving as hosts, and skits appearing on shows such as Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock. Craig Ferguson, the host of this year’s event, has provided Discovery with invaluable free publicity by featuring a “ Brian the Shark” puppet on his late-night show, and giddily talking about his experience diving with sharks. The block of shows' impact on pop culture is “one of the indications that we’ve pierced through the programming clutter,” says President Clark Bunting.
According to Brooks, Shark Week is also responsible for the programming phenomenon known as “marathoning,” which is when a network schedules a full day/week/month of shows around a particular theme.
This year, Discovery will premiere a new program every night at 9 p.m. during Shark Week, including a high-definition version of Air Jaws, the South African great white sharks that jump from the water to attack their seal prey. Other premieres include Into the Shark Bite and Shark Attack Survival Guide.
Though it is called Shark Week, preparation for the seven days of programming is actually a year-long process due to seasonality and migratory patterns. “You don’t just throw on a camera and hop into the water,” says Bunting. Plans are already being implemented for Shark Week 2011, for instance, with about two-thirds of the shows starting pre-production now.
Shark Week has also helped clear up many of the fears associated with the animal and misconceptions about why they sometimes attack humans. For instance, while news reports would suggest that shark attacks have increased exponentially in recent years, that’s actually not the case. The global population has grown, which means there are more people swimming in a shark’s natural habitat than ever before. Most shark attacks occur on Sundays because that’s when the largest number of people are in the water, and men are more likely to be bitten than women if only because they typically spend more time in the water.
Shark Week is also a powerful platform to raise awareness about the dangers sharks face from commercial fishing, which kills more than 100 million sharks worldwide each year and is responsible for declines of as much as 97 percent or more in species such as the tiger, scalloped, bull and smooth hammerhead. This year, Discovery is donating money to support conservation organization Oceana’s campaign to ban the practice of shark finning, where the fins of a shark are sliced off and the remainder of the animal is left to die in the water.
While many networks have found success in creating spin-off versions of popular shows—the various iterations of The Real Housewives on Bravo, for example—Bunting says Discovery has no plans to develop Shark Week clones with other animals as the main character. Indeed, Discovery has actually moved away from nature-type programming in recent years and toward personality-driven shows like Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe and Man v. Wild with Bear Grylls, leading observers to wonder if Shark Week might be better suited for Animal Planet or one of the company’s many other channels. But Zaslav dismissed that idea outright.
“In today’s fragmented and competitive world, brands matter more than ever,” Zaslav says. “Maintaining and building on the strength and incredible brand promise [of Discovery] is one of the top strategic goals of the company, and the annual Shark Week tentpole remains a key part of our success.”
Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.