How Did Discovery Channel’s Shark Week Become So Popular?

Sharkzilla, a 60-foot mechanical shark, thrills the crowd at Discovery Channel’s 2014 Shark Week kickoff party. Photo Courtesy: Daniel Knighton/WireImage via Getty Images

Every summer, Discovery Channel devotes a week of programming to sharks, the most terrifying and graceful creatures to roam the seas. You’ve heard of it. It’s called Shark Week, and every year it seems to get a little bigger, a little more absurd, and a little further from its origins as a week of mostly educational content. These days, Shark Week exists not only as programming, but as a pop cultural touchstone. Back in 2006, when Tracy Morgan said “Live every week like it’s Shark Week” on 30 Rock, the idea of Shark Week as an obvious point of reference was just beginning. 

Sixteen years later, Shark Week is everywhere. This year, Discovery even has a “Battle of the Blimps” — a competition between shark-blimps roaming the East and West coasts of the U.S. There’s also Shark Week: The Podcast. And Tracy Morgan himself will be appearing on a show called Sharks! with Tracy Morgan. There’s clearly nothing too ridiculous or too over-the-top for Shark Week. So, how did we get here?

When Did Shark Week Start?

Back in 2012, producer Brooke Runnette told The Atlantic that rumors about Shark Week being the brainchild of a bunch of stoned Discovery Channel executives was untrue, but that “the idea was definitely scribbled down on the back of a cocktail napkin.” Shark Week, it turns out, officially began in 1988 as a way of capitalizing on the summer season and the fact that shark content tended to rate well. 

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Those ratings owed — and still owe — quite a bit to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece Jaws, which itself was based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 best-selling novel of the same name. The synergy of Jaws the book and Jaws the movie in the mid-’70s created an absolute sensation — people were both excited and terrified to be at the beach and go in the water. That is to say, they were excited about the thrill of the idea of sharks. 

Richard Dreyfus (left), Robert Shaw and “Bruce,” the shark, in Jaws (1975). Photo Courtesy: Everett Collection

And while there had been movies about sharks here and there in the decades prior to Jaws, Spielberg’s film had the advantage of seasonality. In many ways, it was the dawn of the summer blockbuster, and the combination of summer and sharks became an irresistible marketing ploy. Plus, the fact that Jaws’ sequels kept making a bunch of money, whether or not they were good movies, didn’t hurt. 

Shark Week’s first show back in ‘88 was Caged in Fear, in which a motorized shark cage was tested for its resistance to shark attacks — so it’s not like the folks at Discovery Channel were against the idea of exploiting the misconception that sharks are purely killing machines. Still, in the early days, a lot of the programming was conservationist in nature, dealing with environmental threats to sharks and attempting to correct some of the misconceptions about the dangers of shark attacks.

On the other hand, ratings were often buoyed by shows about vicious great whites, and titles like 1990’s “Shark Week: The Revenge.” Pretty quickly, it became clear that Shark Week was going to be an attempt to do two things at once: educate and entertain, which don’t always go hand-in-hand.

The Increasing Success of Shark Week

Shark Week became a bigger and bigger cultural phenomenon with time. Tracy Morgan was able to crack jokes about Shark Week on 30 Rock, because it was already a burgeoning cult hit. 

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Peter Benchley himself was Shark Week’s first-ever host back in 1994, but for most of the first couple of decades of Shark Week, there were no hosts. Beginning in 2004, Discovery Channel started bringing in personalities from its other programs to add celebrity power to the proceedings. The cast of American Chopper hosted in 2004, and that was followed by the hosts of MythBusters and Dirty Jobs in subsequent years. 

Shaquille O’Neal during an interview with Jimmy Fallon in June of 2018. Photo Courtesy: Andrew Lipovsky/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Eventually, bigger celebrities were brought in. The Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson emceed Shark Week in 2010. Andy Samberg (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) hosted in 2011. Horror film director Eli Roth (Hostel) hosted from 2015 through 2017. And then things really got larger than life. Shaquille O’Neal, for example, was the host in 2018. This year, Shark Week’s biggest star yet, Dwayne Johnson, will take on hosting duties: . 

Is Shark Week Controversial? 

At times, Shark Week’s focus on the mythical and absurd has led to accusations of sensationalism. Some of Shark Week 2022’s programming titles include things like Great White Serial Killer: Fatal Christmas, Air Jaws: Top Guns and Shark Women: Ghosted By Great Whites. Clearly, the aim of these programs goes beyond celebrating sharks and educating the public about them. 

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In 2013, Discovery Channel even aired an alleged documentary, Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. The so-called documentary was quickly debunked as it became clear it was entirely staged and based on manufactured evidence. After a bit of public outrage, the network included disclaimers, letting folks know the whole thing was fictional.

However, Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives got really good ratings. Of course it did. And so a few years later, the network made a new special — Megalodon: Fact vs. Fiction — in which it went back over the details of the original faux-documentary. Continuing to capitalize on the success of the whole Megalodon concept probably makes good business sense, but it’s also not really great for the conservation efforts that Shark Week was originally meant to support. 

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The Shark Week Blimp in July of 2022. Photo Courtesy: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images via Getty Images

The truth is, whether it’s ultimately good or bad, Shark Week’s popularity is still going strong after 34 years. It’s also a big boost for the Discovery Channel’s audience in general. Last year, a study found that 37% of the people who watched Shark Week hadn’t watched the network at all in the previous month. And a third of those people stuck around over the following month to watch more. Obviously, the network isn’t going to stop producing Shark Week any time soon.

The fact that they’re bringing in Dwayne Johnson to be the host this year — he’s arguably the most famous host they’ve ever had — seems like a pretty solid sign that Shark Week is as big a deal as it’s ever been. 

Of course, that begs the question: why? Do we love Shark Week because we’re pulled in by the excitement of learning about a kind of danger that we feel mostly safe from? Is it the fact that sharks are a threat that isn’t existential to us, unlike things like climate change? Have we become addicted to Shark Week as a cultural event, and we just like being part of the joke and the general conversation? All of these things are true in some measure. 

In the end, it’s instructive to consider the surprising success of Jaws in 1975. Famously, Spielberg’s production never quite got the mechanical shark — a.k.a. “Bruce” — to work correctly, so they relied on the classic tricks of movie making to scare audiences: reaction shots, the ominous mood of the score, and so on. These things worked so well because the ocean itself is so mysterious. Sharks are a beautiful part of the natural world, but they also represent a kind of unseen danger to us. Shark Week is proof that we can’t help but find that danger at least a little bit alluring. 

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