Shark Week

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Shark! There are few words that have such attention-grabbing power, especially during summer months. Discovery Channel's decision to dedicate an entire week of programming to the feared fish dates back to 1987. The cable channel — then still in its infancy, having just been launched in 1985 — was experimenting with ways to attract viewers during the summer, when broadcast-network programming was between seasons. Shark Week, seven days filled with documentaries and educational shows on the animals, was born.

Mixing docudrama-style narration, heart-stopping footage and educational content, the series has since become a summer-television staple with a cultish following. Sunday, Aug. 1, marked the beginning of the series' 23rd season. It is now cable's longest-running event as well as one of its most watched. Clark Bunting, Discovery Channel's president and general manager, says the series was "very popular out of the gate," and the ratings confirm its popularity. Every year since 1995, the series has pulled in an audience of more than 20 million, and in 2008 it drew its highest audience ever, with 29 million viewers.

Though sharks have always been the main attraction, the channel delved into celebrity appearances in 1994, when Peter Benchley, author of Jaws, served as host. Since then, many well-known faces have lent their fame to Shark Week's various shows. From supermodel Heidi Klum in 2003 to Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe in 2006 to talk-show host Craig Ferguson this year, many have been eager to associate themselves with the event.

But alongside Shark Week's consistently high ratings and high-profile endorsements, the series has received some backlash. Shark conservationists and marine activists have taken issue with Discovery's bread-and-butter event, claiming false advertisement of sharks' true nature. Pointing to shows titled Teeth of Death, Shark Rebellion and Sharkbite Summer, protesters asserted that the week's programming consisted mostly of shockumentaries that incorrectly portray sharks as man-eating predators.

In response to the controversy, Bunting is frank. "Sharks attack people — that's a fact," he says. In 2002 a shark bit Erich Ritter, a Swiss-born biologist, while he was filming a Shark Week special. Though he almost bled to death, Ritter recovered, and the incident was featured prominently in 2003's Anatomy of a Shark Bite. However, Ritter and Bunting have both noted that sharks don't attack humans by choice but by mistake. Ritter told the New York Times that the attack wasn't meant for him, as "sharks don't know what humans are." And Bunting confirms this idea: "Humans are not part of any of the more than 400 shark species' diets. We hope that as we tell these stories, people hear the real message — the victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Discovery Channel has long maintained shark activism throughout its programming. Even the more sensationalized shows — like Blood in the Water, which recounts the shark attacks of 1916 that inspired Jaws — have negated the fear factor by divulging statistics on actual shark attacks on humans (on average, fewer than 63 attacks a year worldwide). And many of Shark Week's programs have attempted to highlight the real predator: man. In July, Discovery announced a partnership with ocean-conservation group Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and the Pew Charitable Trusts to create public-service announcements and awareness of the shark-finning practices that are endangering the creatures.

And while Discovery may deem itself a protector of the finned fish, there is a symbiotic nature to the relationship. Once a small cable network, Discovery is now distributed to more than 100 million homes in the U.S. and more than 180 other countries. And sharks have been with them for almost the whole ride. Inarguably Discovery's best-known series, Shark Week has helped the channel succeed and undoubtedly has become intertwined with its brand. Over the years, Discovery has experimented with other types of television "stunting" — in which a station diverges from its regular programming — yet Bunting said there will never be another animal week like Shark Week. "The mystery and power behind these creatures is unmatched."