LOS ANGELES — After a quarter-century of dorsal fins and drinking games, Shark Week remains a strange and celebrated event. The annual Discovery Channel lineup, which kicks off again Sunday, snared more than 26 million viewers last summer.
The tradition began in 1988, when Discovery aired a week’s worth of shark-oriented programming in hopes of drawing audiences on a slow summer week. It worked: According to Brooke Runnette, the network’s executive producer for special projects, the series’ 1988 premiere doubled Discovery’s prime-time average, launching a 24-year streak of increasingly high yearly ratings.
How did educational programming, devoid of sex appeal or furry LOLcats, become a full-blown pop-culture sensation?
“Besides the fact that sharks are just awesome?” asked Runnette, who planned the 25th Shark Week specials. “We don’t do Grizzly Week, we don’t do Lion Week — it’s that sharks are profoundly mysterious and profoundly powerful creatures. They put us in our place on the food chain. That makes them endlessly fascinating.”
Maybe it’s because society is in awe of the monstrous, from Dracula to Jaws, powerful, scary things have long dominated family movie nights and casual conversation. Shark Week trends on Twitter for days; Runnette said loyal fans upload images of cupcakes with candy teeth, living rooms decorated in “Jaws” theme, babies in shark garb.
But Shark Week doesn’t strive to glorify shark attacks, which periodically make headlines along the coasts in hotter months. Against conventional reality television wisdom, Runnette said, the shows frame sea predators realistically, with great caution. Experts lace safety tips throughout each episode.
“Sharks are rational actors,” Runnette said. “They’re predictable. We aim to teach viewers about their habits and patterns. Sharks never just go out and intentionally hunt humans.”
Sal Jorgensen, a marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, teamed up with Discovery producers to shoot “Great White Highway,” a program that explores movement patterns of the marine beasts, based on his research.
“My hope is the programming will help the public develop a better understanding of sharks,” he said. “They’re not the wandering rogues we seem to think they are. If we know where they’re going to be at specific times, we can better avoid human-shark interactions.”
The overall quality of Shark Week keeps improving, Jorgensen said, adding he probably wouldn’t have signed on in the series’ early years.
Alongside titles like “Air Jaws Apocalypse” and “Shark Fight” (to name two of nine), Discovery Channel’s 25th edition of Shark Week features a bus-sized shark skeleton unearthed in Bakersfield, Calif. “Sharkzilla,” as it’s dubbed, rested near the bones of a decapitated whale, and “MythBusters” co-host Kari Byron aims to answer, “What actually happened there?”
“It really hit home for me when I got to hold a tooth that was bigger than my hand,” said Byron, who is no stranger to shark jaws. While shooting Discovery Channel programs, she fears real-life encounters.