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30 Years Later: How Shark Week Became One of the Discovery’s Biggest Hits

by Annie Kelly

marketing public relations public relations, social media successes

Although Discovery airs fascinating programs all year, there is one week a year that it is best known for: Shark Week. During the last week in July, the longest running-cable event ever is the forefront of the television channel. How exactly has Discovery cultivated this enormous following for an entire week dedicated to sharks? How has it made it so big in just 30 years that people such as Shaq, Gronk and Lindsey Vonn want in? Much of it comes from its PR and brand building over the years. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest moments in Shark Week over the last 30 years.

Working Its Way Into Pop Culture

Some may argue that one of Shark Week’s biggest breaks was in 2006, when Tracy Jordan told his friend, Kenneth, on 30 Rock to “Live every week like it’s Shark Week.” Others think it was in 2010 when Colbert declared Shark Week “one of the holiest holidays” next to Christmas. Regardless of what you believe, it is clear that Shark Week has become an important television program in the celebrity world and common world alike.

Movies Inspired by Shark Week

Shark Week first began in 1988 with the episode Caged in Fear, which tested motorized shark cages. Although it may not have made its way into pop culture until the 2000s, the Discovery program has always seemed to have an implicit association with the movie Jaws, released in 1975. More recently, some movies have even been inspired by the program. One could almost say that many movies released after Shark Week first aired allude to the success of the Discovery program, as it sparks people’s interest in the sea creature. This year, trailers for the movies such as The Meg, a movie about the fictional Megalodon shark (featured on an infamous Shark Week episode), have been making appearances during commercial breaks.

Celebrity Appearances

Watching Shark Week this year makes it evident that celebrities are no strangers to the program. Starting in 2002, Shark Week had famous faces swimming in the water with sharks. In 2005, Mythbusters hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman hosted an episode during the week; in 2011, famous Saturday Night Live comedian Andy Samberg hosted an episode of Shark Week; and last year, gold medal Olympian Michael Phelps raced a (virtual) shark. Just this year, Bear Grylls, Shaq, Ronda Rousey, Aaron Rodgers, Lindsey Vonn, Robert Gronkowski and Guy Fieri have made appearances (and we still have a few days to go!)

(Photo credits: Baltimore Sun)

Shark Week Related Ads

You know your program has hit it big when commercials are created specifically to air during that time. In a way, it could be equated to the ads of the Super Bowl: the messages are extremely targeted to the program and the people watching that program. One of the more memorable ads from this year’s Shark Week is a Dodge commercial showing people hanging out on the pavement rather than in the water. According to Fortune, Discovery said it could generate nearly $18 million in related retail sales just this year, with 26 retail partners across nine different industries. Take a look at some of the companies participating:

Controversial Moments in Shark Week

Although viewers love Shark Week, it has received some criticism from industry scientists about perpetuating the shark as a “killing machine.” Shark Week is supposed to separate fact from fiction. However, in 2013 Discovery debuted Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, which is a fictional “documentary” about scientists searching for the existence of the prehistoric, (totally fake) Megalodon shark. Although the program had disclaimers that the creature was fake, Discovery’s credible reputation was put on the line and was told the film was misleading.

(Photo credits: We Love Sharks!)

David Shiffman, a shark conservation biologist, explained in a Washington Post article that he both loves and hates Shark Week. He says sometimes Shark Week gets science wrong, oftentimes even deliberately, to enhance the message of the program. And as much as Shark Week works to show that sharks are not always dangerous creatures, when airing the more vicious human shark attacks, it does promote a sense of fear and misunderstanding.

So, What Does This All Mean?

After reviewing all of these major moments from Shark Week, what does it all mean? How has Discovery mustered all of this success from 30 years of airing a program about sharks? It feeds on people’s interests. People wanted to see more celebrities on Shark Week, so this year the program includes eight celebrities to star on different episodes. It has become an event that people look forward to every summer, and it is something people talk about in their day-to-day lives, even Colbert. It has gained enough success that huge companies such as Vineyard Vines and Dodge want in on the fun. And most importantly, people continue to be fascinated by and want to learn about the ocean’s greatest predator.

What has been your favorite Shark Week episode? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

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