Shaping Shark Week
MSU alumnus conceived hit Discovery Channel series "Shark Week" & "Deadliest Catch"
Nowadays, it isn’t common to come across someone who hasn’t at least heard of “Shark Week.” But when MSU alumnus W. Clark Bunting first conceived the series almost three decades ago, he didn’t know he was creating what would later become a cultural phenomenon.
Bunting, former president and general manager of the Discovery Channel, is credited with being one of the creators of “Shark Week,” a weeklong annual series about sharks that will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, with its kickoff at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Bunting said “Shark Week” is cable’s longest-running programming event, and it reached an audience of almost 30 million people last year — accomplishments far exceeding what he ever expected the series to achieve.
“I’d like to say I had some amazing insight that this was going to be the longest-running program in cable,” he said. “I was as surprised as anyone else that it has done as well as it has.”
Building a legacy
Bunting said the idea for “Shark Week,” which first aired on July 17, 1988, came about during Discovery Channel discussions about how to attract a larger viewing audience to the network’s shows. Previous programming that focused on sharks earned good ratings, so it was a no-brainer for the network to produce more shows with similar content, Bunting said.
Early versions of the series consisted of previously aired shark-related TV shows bundled together under the name “Shark Week,” but as time progressed, more original content was produced, and the program developed into the success it is today.
“As time went on, there was a heck of a lot more thought that went into what we would do,” Bunting said.
Even though Discovery Channel has aired almost 150 shark-related programs since the inaugural “Shark Week,” executive producer Brooke Runnette said this year’s series is full of fresh, entertaining content, and eight all-new shows will be featured throughout the week.
The week kicks off with the premiere of “Air Jaws Apocalypse,” which follows shark expert Chris Fallows and Jeff Kurr, a natural history producer, as they set out on a journey to learn more about the great white sharks of Seal Island, South Africa.
“Adrift: 47 Days with Sharks” is scheduled to air Aug. 14. This true story tells the tale of two men who survived 47 days at sea while fighting off sharks and struggling to feed themselves.
“You would think that it would be hard to think up new stuff, but we have some really great things this year,” she said. “We’re doing as many fun things as we can possibly think of.”
Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why “Shark Week” has become as popular as it is, Runnette said she believes the high level of interest in the series has to do with the fact that people are both fascinated and frightened by sharks.
“I don’t think it would have lasted if it was ‘Tiger Week’ or ‘Bear Week,’” she said. “I think sharks are one of the few things left in the world that are really wild and mysterious, and they are genuinely awesome.”
Fisheries and wildlife junior Alex Dutcher, who has been a fan of “Shark Week” for years, said she also credits the success of the series to its viewers’ infatuation with the fear-inducing content.
“I think people are curious because they’re afraid of them,” she said. “Something that scares you always strikes you as interesting, so I think that’s why it’s so successful.”
But Dutcher said she doesn’t watch “Shark Week” because it makes sharks out to be terrifying creatures, as they often are depicted, but rather, she enjoys being able to see them as they really are.
“I like that it shows sharks in a less dangerous and horrifying light — still as predators — but not as these killing machines, which is kind of nice,” she said.
Associate professor of geological sciences Michael Gottfried said it is important to accurately portray sharks rather than make them out to be monsters.
Gottfried, who has appeared in multiple “Shark Week” episodes to discuss research he has done on shark fossils, said he is pleased with the amount of interest the series has created about sharks, but there still are some inaccuracies in the way the animals are characterized.
“‘Shark Week’ is terrific in the sense that it has stimulated a lot of interest in sharks and shark conservation, which is a pretty important issue,” he said. “The dark side of it is that some of the programming (depicts) sharks as mindless killing machines.”
Even though many “Shark Week” fanatics are drawn to the series because of its entertainment value, Bunting said the overall goal is to educate viewers about sharks to help them better understand the mystifying animals.
“At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is to make people better understand and appreciate how amazing these critters are,” he said. “The things that you understand and appreciate are the sorts of things that you want to protect. We have fun with it, (and) we make it entertaining, but it resonates at a deeper level.”
Shannon Niceley, a doctoral student studying zoology, said he is a huge fan of “Shark Week” not only because it’s fun to watch, but also because he is able to appreciate the work put forth by the scientists involved with creating it.
Niceley said he watches at least a few new episodes every year and uses these shows as a way to teach his 4-year-old son and expose him to the vast array of wildlife the world has to offer.
“The message I hope most people will eventually get is the understanding of how complex the environment is, what species are out there and what is actually happening with them,” he said. “It’s also important for people like my son because, for him, the message is entirely different. It’s diversity — the amount of biodiversity that’s really out there.
“There’s more than just the animals that we see on a daily basis, (and) that, I think, drives him to want to learn more.”