Andy Casagrande filming sharks 2

When Jaws premiered in 1975, it created panic. Even for new viewers, seeing those soulless black eyes and hearing that music it changes you. Slasher movies made you weary of what could be hiding behind the shower curtain – Jaws made you afraid of any body of water. In the movies, a Great White Shark was as terrifying as any horror movie ghoul. Except this killer was real.

Sharks have always been a subject of fascination, but Jaws put them in the spotlight…for all the wrong reasons. Peter Benchley, the author of the original Jaws novel, is a lifelong shark advocate and expressed regret for ever writing the book that made him a millionaire. The fear caused by his work led to the hunting of sharks under the guise of safety for beach-goers.

A necessary part of the ecosystem, sharks are quite possibly one of the most misunderstood creatures in the world. But how do you counteract the fearsome persona perpetuated by one of the most popular films of all time? You grab that popularity and use it to feed one of the most educational and popular programs of all time, focusing on revamping the image of sharks and promoting their conservation above all else. Obviously.

The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week capitalizes on people’s morbid fascination with these mysterious creatures, luring people in with stories of shark attacks and up-close footage of real people in the water next to these beasts, and then blinding them with science! And it worked as well as a seal decoy off the coast of South Africa!

Until it didn’t. And then it did again. This is the rise and fall of Shark Week.

Shark Week 2017 Hammerhead invasion

Knowledge is Power: A Personal Anecdote

As a kid in the ’90s, Shark Week wasn’t that much older than I was. We grew up together. Having been exposed to Jaws at a very early age, seeing real people swim next to these living, breathing dinosaurs was about as cool a thing as a child could possibly imagine. Shark Week took me from being afraid of my pool to adding cage diving to my bucket list.

While bored at a family function, I did what any kid would do when they aren’t getting attention: I annoyed my mom with super cool shark facts that couldn’t possibly wait. However, this time, it was different. Instead of the more mainstream sharks, I told her about a lesser known one. Small in size, the cookie-cutter shark has a round mouth that latches onto its victims and sucks out the flesh, almost to the bone, in a perfect circle. How metal is that. My mom looked at me with genuine interest. So, beaming with pride, I took out the shark book I had with me and showed her a picture.

It was then that my mom revealed an old family mystery. When my mawmaw (read: grandma) was a teenager, she came out of the ocean in great pain, bleeding from her thigh. Something in the water had taken out a piece of her leg, in a perfect circle, deep into her thigh. No one ever knew what caused it, and the circle scar remained for the rest of her life.

That’s right, with the knowledge I gained from Shark Week, I solved a decades-old family mystery.

But that’s small potatoes. Even more important than my little family mystery was another child, 9-year-old Sean Lesnik, who was so inspired by Shark Week and it’s emphasis on declining shark populations that he wrote a letter to his representative, David Nangle, about putting an end to shark finning (a particularly heinous act). Nangle actually moved the bill filed in Sean’s behalf and that bill became law in the state of Massachusetts.

Andy Casagrande and Paul De Gelder

“Live Every Week Like It is Shark Week”

Much like a scripted series, Shark Week developed a tone and personality over the years that fans could sink their teeth into. Perfectly infusing macabre fascination, ‘wow’ moments, and revolutionary underwater cinematography, Shark Week swam full speed into everyones homes and hearts. When I was a kid, none of my friends watched Shark Week. Then the social media age arrived, science and ‘nerdiness’ became trendy, and by the time I was in high school and college, there were Shark Week parties, complete with drinking games and decorations. Shark Week made puns and kitschy programming titles an art form, a new vocabulary was born, and it was deemed “a bad week to be a seal.” With references on shows like 30 Rock and celebrities tweeting out their love for the program, Shark Week hit its stride, all while exploring science and passing along the message of conservation.

With recurring scientists and studies, Shark Week had its own cliffhangers, something that non-fiction programming can rarely boast. Programs like Air Jaws took Shark Week to the next level. Who knew that great white sharks could fly out of the water? It took viewers’ almost sadistic fascination with natural born killers and turned into legitimate interest, curiosity, and wonder.

They added hosts to the show and played heavily into the tongue-in-cheek nature that is so prominent in the program’s style. Advertising rose, viewership rose, and the money rolled in, meaning the programs just kept getting bigger and cleaner. Tuning in every year was worth it just to see the advancements in the camera equipment alone. A program that began with shows about testing new kinds of shark cages was now able to film a shark’s vertical leap from all angles, above and below the water. Watching the real and pure excitement and enthusiasm from the researchers as years of hypotheses and tests and work came to fruition made scripted acting irrelevant. Not to mention, there was always one or two close encounters that fed the need for drama. Shark Week was a titan.

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