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How Shark Week became a cultural phenomenon

Stephen Frink
Getty Images

Updated July 25, 2022 at 9:17 AM ET

It's Shark Week. What debuted in 1988 is now TV's longest-running programming event. To celebrate, take a look back at this essay Linda Holmes wrote in 2018 about how Shark Week got its teeth. At the time the piece was written, Shark Week was in its 30th year.

This week, Discovery celebrates the 30th anniversary of Shark Week. Do you understand what that means? Nothing! Absolutely nothing!

Well, not nothing. It means that if you are under 30, Shark Week has existed since before you were born. You have never not known Shark Week! On the day you were born, someone could have said, "Boy, I'm really looking forward to Shark Week next year." And the other person would hopefully have squinted and said, "Are you?"

It hasn't always been quite the phenomenon it is now. Perhaps Shark Week reached full maturation in November, 2006 when Tracy Jordan, played on 30 Rock by Tracy Morgan, gave Kenneth the page these words of advice: "Live every week like it's Shark Week." If you care to use the search engine of your choice, you will find that there is abundant bootleg merchandise carrying this very slogan, ripping off both 30 Rock and Shark Week simultaneously.

Since then, Shark Week has been ubiquitous. How much so? It even came up in an interview with Stormy Daniels that aired earlier this year on 60 Minutes.

The saga continues. This year, Discovery is airing specials including Alien Sharks: Greatest Hits, Cuba's Secret Shark Lair, Guy Fieri's Feeding Frenzy, Shark Tank Meets Shark Week, Sharkwrecked, Great White Shark Babies, Sharks Gone Wild, and my personal favorite — an adaptation of an existing Discovery property — Naked and Afraid of Sharks. Shark Week is now fully exploiting every other cliche in reality/unscripted television: celebrities, food shows, baby animals, nudity, brand extensions ... this thing is a machine. They're even revisiting their disastrous Megalodon special from 2013, which made fiction look like science to the point where the entire network's credibility — and yes, it originally had quite a bit of credibility — was damaged.

And what, after all, is more fundamental to the culture of our collective moment than getting more attention for wallowing in your worst decisions?

This year, you can get a plethora of shark tie-in products that allow you to advertise a cable programming event yourself! You can build a shark at Build-A-Bear workshop, buy Shark Week neckties, or eat some Swedish Fish out of a Shark Week bag!

Look: The phenomenon of Shark Week is, at a fundamental level, very ... weird. (That's a highly technical term from the TV industry.) It began as a Discovery Channel marketing flourish — a way to draw viewers over the summer by yelling BOO! about beaches and oceans using the power of science. They've also used it in the past to encourage conservation and to highlight the problems that shark populations face, and they still say they do, to a degree. But that's not why there's a special this year called Sharkcam Stakeout. Sharks represent an example of a common fear that, while real, is wildly unlikely to ever affect an individual person. You couldn't attract big audiences with the thrills of Diabetes Week or Car Accident Week. The dangers of sharks bring to mind exactly the menace and exactly the distance that this kind of exploitation requires. It's right in the pocket: it's exciting, but the odds are very small that this is how you're going to die. Try that with Increasingly Unstable Weather Patterns Week.

But at some point, Shark Week began to be treated like a real point in time, like Flag Day or October. It's spread beyond Discovery. Now we also have a Sharknado movie every summer. (The Last Sharknado: It's About Time premieres on August 19, and it involves time travel.) (I know. Believe me, I know.) Nat Geo Wild — which didn't even exist when Shark Week was invented — now runs the very similar competing "Sharkfest," which will be two weeks long this year and is already underway. (Offerings include Shark vs. Tuna, The Whale That Ate Jaws: New Evidence, and Shark Kill Zone.)

This must stop. Shark Week is not Earth Day. It's not even as charming as Valentine's Day, and Valentine's Day is a scam! At least other invented holidays are invented for the purposes of getting you to buy gifts. Shark Week is just there to make you watch Shark Week.

There's a lot of science on television — public television, especially. There are a lot of wild animals on television, too. But when Shark Week is holding a crossover with Shark Tank simply because they both have "Shark" in the title, and when they're making Naked and Afraid of Sharks just for the guffaw you get when you read the title out loud (just did it; just got one), you've gotten pretty far afield from science and conservation. The key is not to live every week like it's Shark Week. The key is to live Shark Week like it's any other week. Because it is.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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