Summer television changed forever in 1988, when Shark Week made its Discovery Channel debut. This week it’s back, for its 31st annual edition, with a host of new specials and guest stars like Rob Riggle. Take a bite out of these 10 facts about Shark Week.
1. Rumor has it that the idea for Shark Week was conceived at a bar over drinks, though that origin story has been disputed.
In discussing how the idea for Shark Week came about, former executive producer Brooke Runnette told The Atlantic that “the idea was definitely scribbled down on the back of a cocktail napkin.” She explained that a group of Discovery Channel executives had gotten together for a “post-work brainstorming session” over drinks. "As I've heard it, they were just talking about what kinds of things would be fun to do on Discovery. 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.”
In 2014, former Discovery Channel group president Eileen O'Neill corrected this story, telling The Week: "It started with a scheduler and the founder of the company, John Hendricks, brainstorming. They started with the premise that sharks are such predatory beasts, and rated well, and thought, 'What if [we] took advantage of the August beach time?'"
2. The very first Shark Week nearly doubled Discovery's ratings.
Shark Week made its debut on July 17, 1988 with the special Caged in Fear. A total of 10 shark-themed shows aired that year over the course of the inaugural Shark Week, which was an immediate hit. The channel’s ratings nearly doubled their normal primetime average.
3. Shark Week has a lot of celebrity fans.
Shark Week has become a highly anticipated television obsession for viewers around the world, including more than a few A-list names. Tracy Morgan’s 30 Rock character, Tracy Jordan, famously advised Kenneth the Page to “live every week like it’s Shark Week.” In 2010, Stephen Colbert called Shark Week “one of the two holiest of holidays.” Over the years, several other celebrities have expressed their love of Shark Week.
4. Peter Benchley was Shark Week's first host.
In 1994, an emcee was added to the Shark Week proceedings. Appropriately, Jaws author Peter Benchley—whose beloved novel was celebrating its 20th anniversary—became the first-ever host of Shark Week. In the years since, MythBusters stars Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe, comedian/late night host Craig Ferguson, former SNL star Andy Samberg, and modern master of horror Eli Roth (writer-director of Cabin Fever and Hostel) have all filled the role.
5. Shark Week went live in 1999.
In 1999, journalist Forrest Sawyer took Shark Week fans on a live underwater excursion of the Bikini Atoll, with camerawork courtesy of award-winning underwater cinematographer Al Giddings (The Abyss, Titanic), for a two-hour special titled Live from a Shark Cage.
6. Shark Week made scientific history.
In 2001, Shark Week premiered Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa. The program captured the first-ever footage of great white sharks jumping out of the water, in some cases launching themselves as high as 15 feet in the air. New installments have been a staple of Shark Week programming ever since.
7. Shark Week holds a cable television record.
In 2010, Shark Week became the longest-running cable television programming event—and it shows no signs of slowing down.
8. Shark Week isn't just about entertainment—it's about conservation, too.
Though shark attacks make for dramatic headlines, the University of Florida reported that in 2017 there were just 88 unprovoked shark attacks around the world, only five of which proved fatal. Yet more than 100 million sharks were killed as a result of industrial fishing—an issue that hits home with Discovery executives. While Shark Week is meant to both entertain and educate viewers, Discovery Channel also runs a number of PSAs throughout the week to help raise awareness about the dangers facing today’s sharks, and encourage viewers to make their voices heard.
For 2019, they'll also once again partner with Discovery Education, which offers curriculums and additional content for teachers to use Shark Week as a learning tool. According to a Discovery press releaes: "The more than 5 million educators and 51 million students worldwide using Discovery Education’s award-winning Techbooks, STEM Connect, and the recently launched Discovery Education Experience will shortly receive access to a variety of premium Shark Week themed videos, classroom activities, lessons, virtual reality content, and engaging virtual experiences. Through these exciting resources, teachers and students are empowered to explore critical topics such as biodiversity, ocean conservation, marine life, and more."
9. One young Shark Week fan made a huge difference.
In 2014, Sean Lesniak—a then-9-year-old Shark Week fanatic from Massachusetts—was so moved by a special on the declining shark population that he wrote a letter to his local representative, David M. Nangle, asking him to help put an end to shark finning. Nangle agreed with Lesniak's stance and pushed a bill forward to ban the trade of shark fins in Massachusetts. On July 24, 2014, then-governor Deval Patrick signed the bill into law.