How Shark Week Became a 30 Year Phenomenon

A Great White Shark swims toward the camera for Discovery's Shark Week 2018.

No summer would be complete without taking a swim with a shark – a virtual swim that is! It’s that time of year when Discovery showcases its annual Shark Week extravaganza. In 2018, it’s time to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this cultural phenomenon. In a Q&A, Discovery Senior Vice President of Programming Donna D’Alessandro gave the Beyond Community a peek into what goes into making one of the longest running events on television, and how the network continues to “wow” viewers year after year.

Give us an overview of Shark Week’s history. Why was it conceived?

The legend goes that a few executives were sitting around a table thinking about what they should do for a stunt week, and someone said we should do something on sharks. It started out as a small week dedicated to sharks, and from there it has grown in hours and size over the last 30 years. This year we have our largest number of original hours. We have more people and more celebrities helping us celebrate. It has turned into this big cultural phenomenon and at the end of the day, it was always about bringing awareness and education around an animal that we really don’t know that much about. We couldn’t ask for more on that. The fact that we can still teach mass audiences about this creature is amazing. How much television education is out there these days? I really don’t know but we are proud to say we are able to capture that cultural phenomenon and still make it educational.

Is there a particular program during Shark Week that did exceptionally well or that stood out above all the others?

Last year, in our 29th year of Shark Week, we had our highest rated ever Shark Week with Phelps vs. Shark. That right there is the symbolism of what Shark Week is. It’s the pop cultural. We take Michael Phelps who is the most celebrated Olympian ever, and then we take the idea of man versus these animals. Being able to have a scientific skew of that is unbelievable. It’s the absolute merging of everything Shark Week is. It’s a piece of education, it’s a piece of pop culture, and at the end of the day, it’s entertaining. I think that in itself symbolizes what Shark Week is.

What do viewers like to see the most during the week? 

It’s a shark breaching. It’s the face of the great white. It’s the mystical elements that make us in awe of these creatures. When you see a shark breach out of water, there’s something awe-inspiring about that. Just the idea of seeing how large these animals are and then the realization of how small we are in their world—that’s what fascinates people.

Is Shark Week one of your highest weeks in terms of viewership ratings and engagement?  

Yes. Because of what Shark Week is–it brings in masses. It also brings in nontraditional Discovery viewers, and that in itself is unbelievable, especially in this day and age.

What does it take to build a brand like Shark Week? 

To build a brand like that, one: You have to have something that resonates. You have to have patience. At the end of the day, you have to have people that believe in the product. When that comes together, I’m always fascinated by what people can do and bring. That’s what Shark Week is. Like I mentioned, in our 29th year we had our highest ratings ever. That takes patience and that takes commitment. It means always staying on our toes. We have an elite team of people who are always out there looking for the best stories, looking to see where the audience pace is going, and making sure we represent that and capitalize on it.

Give us a glimpse into what a brainstorming session on Shark Week is like? 

It literally comes from someone who throws out a title, and then we ask, what kind of show would that be. Or somebody who says “I saw so and so mention that they like sharks, can we look into contacting them?” It goes so many different ways. And just because Shark Week only happens once a year, it doesn’t mean we aren’t paying attention all year long. We could come across an article that then becomes a piece of development. For example, three years ago there was a fisherman who caught a one-eyed shark off the coast of Mexico, and we made sure to integrate that into an episode. We always take these pieces, and anything that is shark relevant or shark news and bring it into Shark Week in a respectful and tasteful way. We try to stay relevant to what is going on in the world.

This year we are taking the world of Discovery and merging it more with Shark Week. We’ll have Guy Fieri now that Scripps is in our family. We also have Bear Grylls vs. Shark. Bear is one of the forefathers of Discovery programming. We try to bring elements of our world together.

Speaking of, what programming do viewers have to look forward to this year for the 30th anniversary? 

We have a whole list of celebrities, more than ever before. We have Shark Tank meets Shark Week. Ronda Rousey. Then Aaron Rodgers, Lindsey Vonn, and Rob Gronkowski in “Monster Tag.” Bear vs. Shark. Guy Fieri. It is unbelievable when you think of who we have across the board. We have a guy who cooks and then a guy who can score a touchdown, and we couldn’t ask for more. It just symbolizes the mass taste of our audience. There’s a little bit of something in Shark Week for everyone.

Do you see Shark Week continuing to be a staple for Discovery and for audiences moving forward?

Absolutely. As long as there are sharks, we will be there.