Richard Marx’s “Hold On to the Night” topped the Billboard charts, Cindy Crawford covered Playboy, “Coming to America” held the No. 1 spot at the box office, Michael Dukakis was the Democratic presidential candidate, and the first episode of Shark Week ran on national TV. Today, only the latter enjoys the same cultural relevance it did back in 1988.
Twenty-five years and 143 programs later, the Discovery Channel series kicked off its silver anniversary Sunday night, celebrating its reign as cable’s longest-running programming.
But what is it that turned an educational show into such a huge phenomenon?
But what is it that turned an educational show into such a huge phenomenon? The question remains as elusive as ever, with many a confused viewer wandering into online forums to ask, “Am I the only one who doesn’t get it?!”
For some, the answer is obvious — sharks. Our morbid fascination with the big fish is fully indulged during the weeklong marathon, with dramatic footage of close-ups on shark attacks and flying sharks never before seen on TV.
Pop culture has also lent a hand. Drinking games were born. Words like “jawsome,” created. Most famously, Tracy advised Kenneth on 30 Rock to “live every week like it’s Shark Week.” All of which makes it harder to discern whether the mania is in earnest or jest.
“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!” David Zaslav, CEO of Discovery Communications, told The Daily Beast enthusiastically in 2010.
Newsweek’s Isia Jasiewicz mused more cynically, “It’s a sadistic fascination with the horrific misfortunes of cute surfer boys, friendly marine biologists, and... innocent dolphins.”
Whatever the case, Discovery has reason to bring the event — which is nearly as old as the network — back yearly. The network’s founder, John Hendricks, premiered it during the summer as a testing ground for their programs. It worked. When Shark Week first aired on July 17, 1988, it nearly doubled Discovery’s primetime average ratings. On top of that, it was a risk. Shark Week may seem normal today, but as The Daily Beast points out, back then even HBO and Bravo hadn’t started their own original programming yet.
The network has, quite literally, stuck to their winning formula year after year. Much of Shark Week’s 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. daily run is repeated material from years past. Each year sees the premiere of six or seven new programs, while this year boasts a record 10. Like any reality show, watching comes with the expectation that you’ll reach that dramatic, “worth-it” moment in the episode. With Shark Week, there’s the added benefit that you might learn something, too.
While in its early years, the show drummed up shock tactics to pull in viewers (“It rose to prominence using this formula of sensationalism about sharks and danger,” marine biologist Sal Jorgensen told the Los Angeles Times), it’s become more measured through the years, going on to not only inform audiences, but come to the aid of sharks. Sen. John Kerry teamed up with Discovery to sponsor a Shark Week bill to help end illegal shark fishing and increase protection for the animal.
In 1994, Discovery added an element that’s become a key part of its self-deprecating identity — the Shark Week Host. In recent years, they’ve embraced their ironic shtick with hosts such as Andy Samberg.
This year, the series picked someone with a lower profile — 26-year-old web sensation Philip DeFranco, who rose to fame on YouTube and boasts more than 300,000 Twitter followers. It’s a shrewd choice for a series that’s already conquered the TV ratings field and, according to Discovery’s director of communication, Amy Hagovsky, saw the biggest spike in its viewership run parallel to the rise in social media. Just browse through the Shark Week tweets promoting it already — Megan Fox wrote, “Women are deep beautiful blue oceans, and once a month it’s shark week,” while Adam Levine got the timing more accurate:
“#sharkweek. Best week of the year.”
This story originally appeared in Issue 9 of our new weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.