Shark Week creeps up on us every year. Much like in ’08, this year’s serving of shark-related programming snuck up extra undetected under cover of the Olympic Games. But Shark Week is back with a vengeance, and in its 25th year, it’s become less of a week-long special and more of an American tradition.
Considered the longest running cable-program event on TV, Shark Week is just hitting its stride, with the 2010 edition logging 30.8 million unique viewers, its most ever. In this day of Twitter, forget mere Shark Week parties—there are now people live-tweeting the event for a week straight. Restaurants have Shark Week specials. Other channels assimilate with shark-like programming of their own (Syfy whips out the big guns—we’re talking Sharktopus, Mega Shark, and of course Shark Attack 3).
So what gives? Why are people so fascinated with sharks, to the point where Discovery Channel can not only air shark-programming around the clock, but they can actually score their biggest ratings of the year? How has Shark Week, which started in July of 1987, managed to burn on, while trend after trend bites the dust, fizzling out to the tune of JNCO jeans, soul patches and those thug-Looney Tunes shirts people used to wear.
Perhaps it’s that quality of the unknown: despite the national attention Shark Week puts on the biggest, baddest fish in the sea—like Jaws before it—sharks, and the oceans they inhabit, are still mostly a mystery to humans. Simple questions like where do sharks breed and how long do they live still haven’t been answered—just this year a special announced that great white sharks, most popular of all and recently thought to live between twenty and thirty years, actually have life expectancies close to double that. In a world where the most mundane, fleeting curiosities are but a Yahoo Answer away, these secretive creatures seemed to have earned the country’s respect, or at least their attention.
Maybe it’s the sharks themselves. Humans understand the biology of giant land mammals—elephants, lions, wolves; they are like us, only faster, stronger, gifted with superior senses, but negotiating the same terrain we are. In the ocean though, humans are less dangerous than plastic soda rings, and are at the mercy of the natives. The most magical sequences of Shark Week involve nothing more than a swarm of bull sharks patrolling a nighttime reef, a solitary tiger cutting through the murk at impossible speeds, a great white defying physics and breaching—clearing the surface by a dozen feet.
Sharks certainly have a magnetism about them—a new special this year, “Shark Fight,” examined several shark attack victims who remarkably, like most survivors, harbor no ill-will to their attackers, do not fear the ocean and blame only themselves for the incident. Many survivors go into professions or do volunteer work to help protect sharks from harmful fishing practices.
However there are drawbacks to such a limited scope, as is evident by the repetitive nature of Shark Week—which usually features no more than ten-twelve hours of new programming—I grabbed a screenshot of a Shark Week 2012 airing of a 2011 special, which was reusing footage from 2010 (that’s just dizzying). But it’s much like when a band is accused of ripping off The Beatles; yeah, it’s the same sharks we saw last year…but they’re still sharks!
There’s also a disconcerting lack of true nature documentaries, which animal junkies like myself crave. Nation Geographic’s Planet Carnivore: Great White Sharks is the ideal, with Alec Baldwin narrating a violent saga taking place in Africa’s False Bay. No humans, no explanations of how the super-slowmo camera works, just sharks being sharks.
Other than in 2004, when the boys of American Choppers became the first ever hosts of Shark Week (a mantle taken up this year by Philip DeFranco), little has changed in twenty-five years, and little else seems to as America is more than content to fire-up the popcorn, settle down on the couch and enjoy the makos, the angels, the goblin sharks and hammerheads, the attacks and the tagging—summer TV’s zenith, a new American treasure, Shark Week.