10 Bite-Sized Facts About ‘Shark Week’

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Summer television changed forever in 1988, when Shark Week made its Discovery Channel debut. This week it’s back, for its 29th annual edition, with a host of new specials, returning host Eli Roth, and a new state-of-the-art virtual reality feature. 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. (WHICH MAY VERY WELL BE A RUMOR.)

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. IT’S GOT 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 ITS 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, and former SNL star Andy Samberg have all filled the role. Modern master of horror Eli Roth (writer-director of Cabin Fever and Hostel) is returning as the face of this year’s Shark Week.

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. IT MADE SCIENTIFIC HISTORY.

In 2001, Shark Week premiered Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa. The program—which is the fourth most-watched Shark Week special of all time—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.

7. IT 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. This year marks its 29th annual event.

8. IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT ENTERTAINMENT; IT’S ABOUT CONSERVATION, TOO.

According to a release from Discovery Channel, “It is estimated that as many as 70 million sharks are killed annually, either for sport, caught as by-catch, or hunted for their fins in a wasteful practice called shark finning, in which the shark's fins are cut off at sea and the rest of the (live) shark is often tossed overboard where it ultimately drowns.” While Shark Week is meant to both entertain and educate viewers, Discovery Channel has also teamed up with Oceana, the world’s largest ocean conservation nonprofit, to help raise awareness about the dangers facing today’s sharks, and encourage donations to the organization. The channel also runs anti-finning PSAs throughout the week.

9. ONE YOUNG FAN MADE A BIG DIFFERENCE.

In 2014, Sean Lesniak—a 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.

10. VIRTUAL REALITY WILL PLAY A PART IN THIS YEAR’S PROGRAMMING.

This year’s Shark Week will feature a virtual reality component: Discovery Channel will bring viewers one step closer to experiencing all the shark action via the DiscoveryVR app.

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